Let’s get this out of the way: Search engines are a key part of communications nowadays. Take a look at your website analytics and it’ll be clear – there’s no avoiding it. Search engines usually drive a significant proportion – if not the majority – of traffic to companies’ websites.
However, I’m tired of seeing “studies” showing that “search engines” are a source of information for consumers.
Search engines are a conduit – a step along the path – not a source.
Think about it – when you look for information on something, you go to Google (or Bing, or Ask.com, or whoever…) and type in your query. The vast majority of the time, you don’t sit and look at the results page – you click through to a result. You do that because the results pages have the information, not the search engine.
Yes, there are exceptions – Google News, for example – and sometimes you’ll find the information you need in the title or description shown in the search results, but the majority of the time you pass straight through the search engine and on to your destination. Search engines understand this – Google optimizes its page to get you off its site as quickly as possible.
Why does this matter, and am I just being pedantic?
Because the nodding and agreement that comes from headlines about search engines as an information source interferes with the push to answer more important questions:
- Do consumers in my market niche, rather than generic consumers, use search engines to research their products?
- Once my consumers have searched (or not), where do they go?
- Do they go to product review sites to check out other peoples’ reviews?
- Do they go to corporate sites to read-up on specs and options?
- Do they go to news sites to see what’s going on with the company or the product?
- Do they go to blogs to check out discussions there?
This is the sort of information that’s useful. This is the sort of information that lets my team figure out where to prioritize its efforts in order to drive search engine optimization (driving consumer reviews; publishing product-focused content; driving earned media coverage, etc).
Also, there’s a big difference between customers of different industries – preferences along these lines are what we should be digging into (note: this is another report that cites “search results” as an influential channel). We need to be thinking more closely about that.
I get it. Search is important. Companies need to pay attention to search (and invest more in optimizing both organic results and the paid media around those results). Etc etc. And yes, some companies aren’t paying attention.
For the rest of us, though – those of us trying to do the best we can, and who really want to optimize based on useful insights – let’s move beyond the “search results are an important information source” nonsense and get down to the business of finding useful insights that can fuel our communication strategy.