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The Changing Search Landscape

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In the e-commerce game, there is a lot of talk of eyeballs. Like in other visual media, the more eyeballs focused in one place, the more valuable that place becomes. The darlings of e-commerce to date have been search engines, but industry experts are seeing trends that indicate the portal is coming back in a big way, and search is the gate before the front door.

The Changing Search Landscape
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While Google continues to dominate in search share, controlling anywhere from 40-62% of the search market (depending on who you ask), the data seem to indicate the emergence of a more sophisticated searcher. Instead of migratory, Internet users are navigating their way around the Web to places they’ve already been, or places they’ve heard of somewhere else.

In fact, if the e-marketer were to take his or her attention away from search traffic for a moment, they may see an interesting greater picture. Nielsen//NetRatings’ Ken Cassar, speaking to a packed Hilton ballroom at the Search Engine Strategies Conference in New York City, intimated that search accounts for only 5% of overall online activity.

The question then is: what are they doing the other 95% of the time? Cassar says that 41% of the time, they’re visiting communication sites; 35% of the time they’re digesting content; and 19% of the time they’re shopping. It mirrors real life in that first we talk about a product, do a little research, and then make a purchase (even if 59% of purchases occur offline 5-8 weeks after the initial research, according to Hitwise’s Bill Tancer).

The trend toward navigation over exploration may be the harbinger of a new era. comScore’s James Lamberti says the 4th quarter of 2005 was the first quarter since this type of data has been measured that search growth slowed to single digit percentages. People are getting a feel of where they’re going and where they will return.

Without including click through rates and conversions, only 9% of Web traffic comes from search. Bookmarks were responsible for 18%, and 15% came from following a link. In the keyword world, the top search terms are heavily dominated by URL searches – and important development to note as indicates the searcher already has an idea of where he or she wants to go – from experience.

The SES panel seems to agree then, that the search landscape was indeed changing and that marketers should be paying close attention to virally charged social networks MySpace and YouTube. In a short time, MySpace has overtaken Google in terms of page views and YouTube has taken over Google Video and Yahoo Video, primarily due to the viral success of Saturday Night Live’s “Lazy Sunday” clip.

“Google is overblown,” says Cassar.

“All they need [at MySpace] is a search engine,” says Tancer.

With the release of a slew of side services like Google Books, Video, Chat, et cetera, Google seems to realize that navigable content delivery is very important. Their collaboration with Amazon.com to develop the A9 search engine shows how seriously the shift is being taken. With that merger, “search becomes the connector between intent and content,” said Gord Hotchkiss, moderator of the session.

It also shows a move to more efficient search that puts the burden on search engines, not the user, to find content. A9 provides a number of options that includes images, people, webpages, and others side by side.

“People don’t want to work that hard to search,” said Hotchkiss.

The one to watch in all this is MSN. Historically, the engine has been far behind Google and Yahoo in search. But, as the panel pointed out, the killer app may be just how MSN is worked into the upcoming release of Windows Vista.

It may be that search marketing will never go away as an important tool, but community sites are picking up steam as valuable media – media advertisers will want to have a place in.

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