by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

If 2007 was a year wherein lots of companies got their collective heads around Internet search, 2008 could be the year they start thinking about what to do when they're found.

Search behavior, whether via Google, Yahoo!, MSN, Ask, or any number of other engines, is question asking. It takes the information available to a would-be customer from limited to infinite, from controlled to chaotic. And it profoundly changes any so-called brand conversations by allowing customers to decide what they want to know, where they want to find it, when they want to know it, and then why and how they'll use it to make purchase decisions.

Marketing's approach to this phenomenon has been to use it as a glorified sales lead generator. Companies cough up billions to have their brand names appear in the sponsored results of searches, and billions more to finagle higher page rankings in the "organic" results (through search engine optimization and other techniques that still reek of divining). 

But we've not heard a lot about what they're doing differently in response to being found.

Few searchers are looking for information about brands, at least in any traditional sense of the term. Creative, emotions, logos and colors, and any associative aspirations that once drove the business of thrusting answers at consumers aren't usually relevant to the questions searchers are asking.

In fact, the very presumption that anything can be branded -- remember, marketing's use of the term suggests that products and services can be indelibly identified with a variety of imagined meanings, not just labeled -- isn't so reasonable when consumers have access to experiential truth. 

So finding pretty web sites, funny commercials, or any other brand contrivance in response to a search query is pretty much a wasted moment.

Perhaps in 2008 we'll see businesses explore search behavior less as a marketing channel, and more as an uber-mechanism that itself defines what we mean by the term brand, considering:

  • What people are looking for. Questions rarely center on which celebrity sponsors what product, or whether one corporate color is better than another. Maybe the most common search queries relevant to a brand are a clue to what companies need to do in order to answer them
  • Where they're looking for those answers isn't to company websites, or to the creative invention of brand marketers. The nature of outsourced consent means that searchers are more likely to check independent, often unmoderated chat rooms, special interest group sites, etc. It might be more important for brands to figure out how to manage presence in those outlets (proactively, not just monitoring)
  • When people search happens at any stage of a chronology of purchase intent, from the moment of initial awareness, up to being poised to make a purchase. How brands assess the location of would-be customers along that chronology, and address it, might be more important that trying to sell to them at every or any step
  • The why of search goes to the question of who is doing the searching and, contrary to any of the supposed behavioral techniques, searchers are mostly anonymous. Worse, they may be purposefully other than what they claim to be. So searchers don't fit into convenient artificial categories of customers. Branding, as traditionally conceived against a particular demographic of customer, is a shot in the dark online

My prediction is that our branding-on-steroids dreams of customer control -- using the Internet to track and manipulate them -- will start to give way in 2008 to more subtle, real-time, and truly engaging approaches to participate in the online conversations that have forever obviated such control fantasies.

Search is the fundamental brand behavior, not a channel to receive branding. Maybe in 2008 we’ll see more thinking on what to do with it.

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