Readers of our column know that we called the beginning of the end of search engines some time ago, when we noted that Facebook and MySpace had already started to generate more ad views and targeted traffic than Yahoo and Google. Unfortunately, Microsoft didn’t seem to have read our post, and went ahead with Bing. Microsoft calls it a “decision engine” and it certainly works differently than the traditional search sites. Yet technology improvements aside, none of the search engine players have considered the basic question: Do people really “search” for things on the internet any more?
When the internet came out, nobody could find anything on their own. Most website traffic came from somebody writing a magazine article about them. Readers would then punch in the URLs manually in a crude browser. Then Yahoo and Google came along, and started the “yellow pagination” of the web. On early versions of Yahoo, the better content was found by drilling down in the categories, click by click, until you found the right list of sites. Google’s approach was different, with it’s empty-box approach, capable of responding to your questions. The trouble is, if you’re looking for something, you usually have empty-brain, as well. Getting Google’s box to give you the right results is still mostly a guessing game, even today.
Then came the monetization of these databases. Advertising penetrated the search world. Search results have become, well, somewhat polluted. Even the most direct searches are surrounded by “competing” websites from paid advertisers. And that’s not to mention the silliness of a million search results for any search topic.
Yes, it essentially works. But will it in the future?
Think about your last visit on the web, even how you got to this article. I’m willing to bet it didn’t involve a “search” event. For example, when I fired up the browser to write this entry, I went directly to my blog’s administration page. I used a bookmark, not a search. While I’m writing this, I also have other sites open – Facebook, the Wall Street Journal and my company website. I didn’t search for those pages either; I typed them directly or used my links-bar to launch them.
In fact, most of the time, this is how I use the internet. Not searching for stuff, but going to places where I already know I’m likely to find answers.
If I need to travel, I go directly to one of the major travel sites, like Travelocity or Priceline. To order a book, I type in “bn.com” for Barnes and Noble. If I’m thinking of a new laptop, I punch up “lenovo.com” or “dell.com” or maybe “cnet.com” to look at some reviews. I don’t perform a search for any of these things on a search engine. Mostly because I know the results will be useless. And any sites on page one will be companies I already know.
Why waste my time searching?
Interestingly, within my favorite sites, I conduct all sorts of searches. I search for flights and hotels on the travel site; comptuer reviews and comparisons on the computer sites; and books and music on the bookseller sites. So I do search for things; I just don’t use the search portals.
The same is true for real estate.
Do we really think people go to Google and Yahoo and type in “real estate, AnyTown, USA” these days? Doesn’t the Average Internet Joe know that places like REALTOR.COM, Zillow and Trulia exist? Hasn’t he just seen a television ad or even – gasp!- a newspaper ad for his leading local real estate company or its parent national brand?
The average consumer – if they are anything like average me – searches for real estate on sites he already has bookmarked. He already has his “go to” sites for almost every major commodity. He understands the web, and now uses it to patronize the companies he already knows. For most consumers, the “search and find” excitement has worn off the web.
If I’m looking for vacation ideas or hotel suggestions, I am just as likely to search reviews on the Wall Street Journal website as I would go to the travel portals. Both are already “bookmarked in my head.” I am least likely to go to a search engine and type in “hotels in Las Vegas” or “fine dining in Rome” because I know I’m going to get 1 bazillion useless results. The front page will be dominated by the biggest paying players – and I am already familiar with them. So why did I need to search?
If there are any “hidden” treasures hidden on the web, the search engines aren’t going to help me find them because they are probably too small to compete for prime spaces. The best real estate company in a local town still probably can’t outrank the major sites – and the search engine noise – that a typical search will likely return. The first few pages are dominated by the same companies that dominate my common knowledge for any product. Search has just become a waste of time.
The exception is for super-targeted information. A particular phone number. A street address of a company I know, but just need to locate on a map. A news story that I wish to find more information about. Even these searches, however, are becoming useless, when top spots are taken up by “related” results like a dumb YouTube video parody of the news story I’m looking for.
Search has become “ugh” more than “wow!”
Finally, let’s not forget that nowadays, I’m more likely to ask my friends in my social network for suggestions on products and services, like what book to read, where to vacation and a referral to a good REALTOR. Not a machine – but a real person. I think people prefer hearing ideas from other people, not HAL.
Now, if any of my experience is even partially the same for others, we could arrive at some very interesting consequences for the real estate industry, such as:
- Real estate brokers can shift considerable marketing dollars away from search engines and into other marketing activities. The pursuit of pay-per-clicks and the tyranny of the “unguessable” keyword game will finally end. Brokers can shift resources into activities that generate “persistent” brand recognition in their target customers’ minds, using customer relationship management campaignsrather than trying to “guess the keywords” to trigger an ad.
- Agents should give it up when it comes to search engine advertising. At least anything paid, like keywords or ads. It’s all cool and fine if your blog or Facebook page help you rank higher for certain searches; but remember, it still depends upon consumers to search in the first place.
- Making and maintaing friends on social networks is likely to outpace search engines as a source of future traffic, especially amongst a broker’s sphere of influence. That’s good news, considering most social networking is free, and costs for effective search engine page domination continue to skyrocket.
- Start looking for the next consumer awareness channel. If searching is declining – perhaps fastest amongst Gen X and Gen Y who are masters of the web – then find the next medium that will reach future customers. Maybe it will be social networks, maybe not, if consumers quite social networkingsites en-masse once they become more commericialized. Check out mobile marketing. Consumers won’t use smartphones to search. They keys are just too small. But they will be connected to trusted partners – through applications, widgets and feeds.
Except for the last item above, which could end up like all predictions, real estate professionals should already be able to measure their search engine effectiveness. Web traffic reports might possible be reflecting this shift already – especially if companies have cut back on their pay-per-click budgets during the recession.
Of course, most of us could just monitor our own internet usage for a couple of weeks. How many times do you use the internet effectively without conducting a search? It’s a matter of internet maturity: As we have become more comfortable with the tools, and have demystified the web, we have started to memorize the areas that are most important to us. We find ourselves going on directed and targeted journeys on the web; more in control and less at the mercy of 1,985, 434 suggested search results.
It has happened before. It’s just like memorizing your favorite television channels. When we first got 500 channels of cable, we were excited to endlessly flip through the onscreen guide. Now most of us are familiar with the system – and because our time is limited – we click to our favorite channels directly. We record our favorites shows with one click, like downloading a podcast, without searching the guide for the next episode’s time. Our habits change. We don’t flip through the paper, but turn to our favorite section. We don’t scroll through the dial, but click a preset radio station button.
Now we use the web from bookmarks sites and familiar URLs.
The game of out-guessing the search is over. When nobody picks up the TV Guide at the checkout counter, why advertise in it? The next great challenge for companies won’t be getting a page-one ad spot, but earning a position as one of the “preset buttons.” And not on the computer screen or the control panel, but in the minds of consumers.