20 Billion and Counting ...

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A few months back, Yahoo said that its search engine index had topped 20 billion items. 20 billion! To put that in perspective, 20 billion seconds ago, Columbus had yet to make his controversial journey. I got rid of my television a few years ago, but before I did, I had 500-plus channels of DISH Network. Every once in a while, I would scroll to the upper regions of the program guide and pleasantly encounter channels I'd forgotten, like finding an old pocket knife when you rummage through a rarely used suitcase.

I know it's trite to say, but we are surrounded by a cacophony of media. My favorite recent encounter was a video screen installed above the hand dryer at an airport washroom. I like to think about how that advertising media is sold. "Studies show that men who wash their hands after (expletive deleted) are well above the national average for education and disposable income."

This cacophony is why search marketing is so successful.

In a way, search is like anti-marketing. We are bombarded with messaging from every direction. We use search to cut through the clutter. The importance of search is not because of the Google algorithm or broadband penetration or performance-based ad pricing. As long as our world becomes more complex, the means to search and organize information will become more important. Marketers are starting to discover how little we know about the true value of search.

In a fascinating study released by the CMO Council in October (the RetailFluency report), offline shoppers in three big U.S. retail chains were surveyed to determine what influenced their shopping behavior. More than half of people walking out of the stores with product said they had researched online before buying. MORE THAN HALF!

Now, I have worked with many advertisers to determine what keywords are performing, and have generally found that branded keywords do best and that informational keywords don't do as well as hoped. That might have been the correct answer, but I didn't have the question right. The question I was really asking was what are the last keywords clicked before purchase by people who search and buy online, and do so on a single computer? I didn't want to ask so limiting a question, but most advertisers tracking data did not allow a broader approach.

More recently, I have been mining the anonymous data collected by Atlas tracking to re-evaluate the influence of keyword campaigns. The results have been striking. In one study, I found that visitors who searched more than once were nearly twice as likely as the average visitor to buy. I also found that visitors who clicked on a display ad and then searched were four times as likely to buy. When I took these factors into account when valuing keywords, the number of keywords seen to influence sales increased significantly.

But, still, I'm limited by the data that is being collected online. The RetailFluency report, and similar research tells us that we are only scratching the surface. We need to get better at marrying offline data to online data to complete the picture. Even a crude estimation of offline vs. online search revenue is a big improvement over ignoring offline sales all together.

One thing is for sure; the Web isn't getting any smaller. The value of search will continue to grow whether we track it or not.


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