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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Yahoo's Slider Makes Commercial vs. Informational Dichotomy Overt

Playing to "the algo," as we've argued here for some time, may soon be a thing of the past.

Yahoo's "Mindset" beta offers searchers the ability to customize their search as to commercial intent. Searching for commercial results? Slide the slider closer to the commercial side. Doing a more research-oriented search? Slider over to the right.

Google was the first to introduce sliders of this type. We felt that the significance of this wasn't so much the personalization experiment per se (users would tick off subject interests to "orient" themselves to the engine), but the whole experience of watching results bubble up and down depending on where one set the slider. For the average user, but maybe more importantly, as an educational tool for children learning to search, this could take the whole search experience to the next level.

The other important implication of a world where searchers see vastly different results depending on their own personalized algorithmic recipes, of course, is that search engine optimizers and especially hard-core search engine spammers can't reverse-engineer "the algo". It becomes harder to make generalized claims about "what search engines like." That would mean search marketing would really begin to be about deep marketing strategy, not just B.S. game-playing. A few really good cloakers might clean up, though. More likely, SEO's would claim that the best strategy would be to create multiple site types and multiple page types in order to do their job properly.

Amateur site optimizers and classic "white hat SEO's" might even be harder hit than the hard core optimizers under this scenario. Insofar as they tend to believe in a certain model for a well-optimized site -- one that might sit just to the right of the center of the commercial vs. research slider on the user's interface -- they'd be losing out on more of the traffic that came from eager buyers who slid the control all the way over to the "commercial" side. Few would use that as their default setting, but in those cases where folks really were looking for a commercial page, a "white hat" edict to "create plenty of useful content" might actually backfire, giving a site or page a profile that didn't match the user's commercial intent in making the query, thus pushing such listings well down the list of SERP's.

Currently, such "white hat" pages do very well in Google results. Arguably, that has been the whole purpose of Google's ongoing search quality initiatives leading up to, and especially after, the "Florida" index update of November 2003.

MSN Search was next to introduce "sliders," under the "results ranking" link in search preferences, but like Google's, it was experimental and didn't necessarily create any major useful dichotomies for searchers to sink their teeth into. Popularity and freshness are among the variables. You can play with it to see different results, which I sometimes do when I'm having trouble finding stuff.

Yahoo's Mindset initiative is a stunning and important contribution to a potentially exciting user experience for searchers. Top marks to Yahoo. We'll be watching for further development by all the top engines.

In playing around with the slider I notice that one friend's site, a well-known e-commerce site in its small niche, hits its high-water mark (a #1 ranking on his core term) when the slider is just one tick over towards the "research" side. Evidently, at least for now, Yahoo's technology interprets his site or its home page to be a slightly-white-hat type of thing. When I slide it farther over towards "research," he disappears off the first page, and others (including some commercial pages -- the machine learning should eventually take care of that) rise. When I slide the setting all the way towards "commercial," my friend's (highly commercial) site also drops off the list. I guess his site just isn't quite crassly commercial enough. Drat that blog!

The precariousness of first-page rankings with only minor user-driven adjustments on one parameter just underscores the silliness of client expectations (often fueled in the past by consultants overzealously selling SEO) of top-five results on core terms. Major companies feel they "should be" #1 or no worse than #3 on core terms. Niche leaders get jealous when a competitor at about the same level gets ranked one or two spots higher. Clients of SEO firms get disgruntled if the SEO firm "doesn't get them from #7 to #4" or worse, "allowed us to drop from #2 to #38." It's my sincere hope that down the road, there really will be no #2 or #38. There will be "#2 for Jim, #34 for Sheila, #95 for Naveen, and #10 for Ed." If Jim is your best potential customer anyway, then it's no great loss that your ranking for Sheila might bounce around in the 20's and 30's.

Someday, finally, everyone will look only at real campaign metrics within their web analytics reports: search referrals, paid search referrals, conversions to various actions, and so on. Month to month benchmarks of key metrics (including something as raw and un-search-ish as a simple chart of new customers acquired, on a simple bar graph for each month... doesn't that put it all in perspective) are far more important than "search rankings," of course. Just as in real life, "meals fed to family" is a better metric to look at than "red lights beaten." The two probably don't show a positive correlation, and depending on how aggressively you're trying to beat red lights, they could show a markedly inverse relationship.

Financial advisers have been facing pressures to "create results" for many years. But as we know, markets, like organic search rankings, will fluctuate. Depending on the investor, the best adviser might be the one who educates you, encourages diversification, insists that a certain percentage of your porftolio be in unfashionable value plays, and above all, protects your capital.

It will take years more of education before it's more widely understood that search marketing is about deep marketing strategy, and that search works for users in ways that defy control by marketers. You can steer intelligently to move things in the right direction, and spend a bit more to create better ROI on a search campaign. You can gain amazingly targeted customers at a rapid rate if you do it right. But search engines, as always, are working on ways to serve users, not just advertisers. That means that a first-page organic result is still a low-probability thing. Increasingly, any claims that there is a set methodology for achieving such results consistently should be met with scepticism.

For users, experiments like Mindset are all good.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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