Is Search the Anti-Brand?

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

I wrote an entire chapter in my book, Branding Only Works on Cattle, about how the ubiquity of information available to consumers via Internet search (access, richness, and authenticity) search, would destroy the fundamental, command-and-control presumptions of branding.

Thanks to a tip from a fellow dim bulber, today, now I’m thinking that maybe I got it backwards?

"Wouldn’t it be nice if Google understood the meaning of your phrase rather than just the words in that phrase?" asked the company’s CEO Eric Schmidt on an earnings call earlier this year. He was referencing a broader company mandate to use brands to help clean up the "Internet Cesspool" of content. An Update issued in mid-January purportedly made it easier to prompt branded content with search queries, all in the name of providing better relevance.

Do you want your mind read?

I know why a brand would want to do it, which is why there’s lots of money in it for Google if it can make it work. 

  • A good number of Internet searches don’t involve brand names at all: people might look for information on a trend, topic, or thing that doesn’t have a logo on it
  • For those searches that do involve brands, the intent may not to be to find any content that the owners of said brands provide
  • A good number of Internet queries, like questions in real life, aren’t even fully formed: we human beings tends to ask about things without necessarily knowing what sort of answers we’re looking for, if we’re looking for them at all

If, through a combination of secret codes, severed chicken feet, and large cash payments to Google, brands could get better teed-up to complete/answer those queries, all would be good again in the branding world. Forget trying to get consumers to attach qualities to brands through humor, repetition, and effort. The algorithims would do it. 

I’m having a hard time reconciling this with my perhaps Utopian dream for Internet search.

In my crazy thinking, a truly consumer-driven search experience would rely far less on guesstimating the right answers, and helping people figure out how to ask better questions.

Think about it: isn’t it kinda strange that there’s no how-to or FAQ for using Google (or any search engine, for that matter)? It’s not like searching is so simple and obvious. We know that’s not the case, as it’s more than likely that you’ve not found what you were looking for in a recent search (or, if you’ve ever tried to explain how to use it to someone over the age of 60, you know that search is not intuitive at all).

So if there were better explanations, and then easy-to-follow rules for queries — like declarative sentences or questions, maybe requiring a single active verb, or providing categories of key page resources from which to choose (like commercial or not) — consumers would get better answers. 

I’m a big fan of vertical and social search, only because they rely, by definition, on matching certain types of information with specific queries, like "best hotel room." They publish their ranking rules (usually). Better yet, those searches don’t rely on the technical or monetary resources of marketers, but rather would tee-up the answers from the experiences of other proles like you and me.

But those probably aren’t the answers brands want us to find.

Greater minds than mine can probably explain this situation far better, though rarely do they choose to do it in plain English. So which is it: does Internet search give companies the ability to manage (i.e. control) the conversation about their brands, or is it the tool to uncover (i.e. free) reality in spite of said efforts?

It’s most likely both, right?

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