Everything I Know About Search I Learned From My Desktop

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MSN just announced the release of its desktop search from beta. That puts MSN in the thick of the fight with Google, and ahead of Yahoo and Ask Jeeves (the latter two whose desktop search products are still in beta). We won't get into the question of who's best -- that might be a question for another time. We will, though, take the opportunity to ask what desktop search means for the future of search overall, because desktop search is an indicator of quite a lot.


Why? Because desktop search touches on the two major forces in the future of search. The first issue is the integration of search into information platforms beyond the Internet -- into your wireless, your desktop and maybe even further.


The second issue is the personalization of search, both through personalizing the generalized search engines like Google and Yahoo, and through the advancement of smaller, more targeted search engines. Combined, those forces describe the direction that search is going from where we are now, and so they make desktop search a very good starting point for any discussion of where search will be in the future.


Search engines take over the world. Desktop search is free. And making desktop search wasn't so easy. Meanwhile, all the energy and money that the search companies spent on desktop search could have gone to making their online search services more competitive. So why spend the time, money and energy on desktops? In other words, what did the search engine companies have up their sleeves?


The answer that Did-it chairman Kevin Lee offered, in an interview with this newspaper, is attention-grabbing (his word was "eyeballs"). If you've got people's attention in one arena, the logic goes, they'll give you their attention in other spaces.


That sounds like a branding point. If you like Yahoo desktop search, you'll use Yahoo Internet search more. If you like Google desktop search, you're more likely to use Google. In other words, desktop search is a way to give your search engine name the recognition it needs to succeed online. It's like a key chain or mousepad giveaway at a trade show.


That was part of Kevin's point. But, much more, he was making a point about where you put your mouse. Because, on the desktop search engine interface, there's a link to the Internet search engine. So if you're already using Yahoo desktop search, it becomes that much easier to use Yahoo Internet search; if you're already using Google desktop search, you're that much more likely to use Google. That's a short-term payoff in terms of immediate traffic to your search engine, and a long-term payoff in terms of getting searchers used to your engine. It's win-win.


Desktop search gets searchers hooked on search engines for a simple reason: Everything's interconnected. Your desktop is connected (or connectable) to the Internet; your wireless device is connected to the Internet; your Internet is connected to the Internet. And because everything is interconnected, everything is fair game to become the next battleground in the search engine wars.


So, continuing on a line of thought we started last week, search isn't just about the Internet anymore. It's about getting the information you need to manage your entire life. And every search engine company wants to be the service provider you use to get all that information. Desktop is one example of that.


A little search for everyone. The first half of what desktop search is about is the search engines' desire (or need) to take over the world. The second half is the search engines' push to become, effectively, a personalized engine for each new searcher. Because what, after all, could be a more personalized search experience than a search engine that's just for your desktop alone?


Online, there are many more examples of this personalization. There are the obvious examples: the "search history" features, offered by both Yahoo and Google, and features like Google's "Personalized Web Search" (still in beta), which asks you questions about your interests and reorganizes the normal search results in a way that's more relevant to you (the most personally relevant results appear first, and the typical results appear after them). Gmail's e-mail search properties are yet another example.


But there are subtler forms of personalization also. Just this month, a joint study from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University and the search engine Dogpile found "that only 3 percent of page one search results returned [from] Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves are the same."


Because each engine is dealing with its own set of search algorithms, such a drastic difference would point to a consistently different results-creation style. And different styles would appeal to different kinds of searchers: This might explain, partially, why some people prefer Google while others prefer Yahoo. Which is to say that even a so-called general search engine is, effectively, designed for specific kinds of people (though perhaps not intentionally so).


Meanwhile, while the big players are busy trying to be good in every kind of search, a cottage industry of niche and vertical engines, as well as smaller search engines with unusual capabilities, has grown. When you want to buy a new product, you might search through Froogle (Google's comparison shopper) or through Yahoo shopping; but you also might go to a shopping-only engine like Bizrate, Nextag or mySimon.


If you're looking for MP3s, you might Google your favorite music; or, you could do an MP3 search on Lycos. Similarly, as of this month, you can find online tutorials through the search engine FyberSearch. And the smaller, specialized engines have already begun to make a dent in the traffic that goes to the big players.


Obviously, all these "personalizations" are very different. But the main thing they have in common is that they're all ways that the search engine world has learned to address each searcher uniquely. They're the second half of what desktop search represents: the drive to make each search engine just for you (whoever you are).


The future of search engines and the future of search engine marketing. So desktop search is one of the many examples of how search is becoming both more personal, and more entrenched in all aspects of everyday life.


The combination is a boon for search engine marketing: If it's entrenched in many corners of life, it means that it's a way to meet new clients and customers in many different ways; if it's personalized, it's a way to interact with your audience in a way that becoming increasingly targeted. If it's both, it's as good as a long conversation with your best customer (or getting there, anyway).


That's the boon. But there's also a challenge. Just because the opportunity is there, that doesn't mean we've all grasped its full potential. Now that SEM firms are able to address each searcher (or at least each group searcher) with much more specificity than ever before, ads and ad strategies have room to become much more specialized.


And now that so many different media provide different search marketing opportunities, we really need to analyze the full capabilities of each medium, as well as the capabilities of intermedia search marketing -- using search strategies that, rather than using each medium individually, actually orchestrate a multimedia campaign with each part acting in tandem.


Which means that there's a lot of opportunity on the horizon for the world of SEM. What's left for all of us in the industry is to learn how to fully capitalize on that opportunity.


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