The Importance of Search Engines

By Gregory Smyth

I once read that the average person living in a modern industrialized society is exposed to as many different pieces of information in a single day as a person living 100 years ago would have seen in a year. This includes everything from advertisements, newspaper headlines, websites, text messages, traffic signs to T-shirt slogans. The list goes on and on. It's hardly surprising that attention spans are getting shorter and that the majority of people believe themselves to be busier than ever.

With this information overload, it is next to impossible to remember everything -- recalling names, dates, figures, phone numbers, email addresses and all the corporate and client information -- to do business effectively. That's why we use tools to do the remembering and information retrieval for us. My company uses Salesforce.com to handle the bulk of our customer relationship management information. I use Microsoft Outlook to manage my email. When I want to find a product, service or piece of information online, I use a search engine.

I'm not alone in using search engines. Far from it. In the month of March 2006 alone, there were 6.4 billion searches. Assuming each user looks at an average of two search results pages, each of which displays 10 search results, that gives an average of 128 billion search results shown to Internet users in a single month. Search engines are ubiquitous and so accepted in contemporary culture that the word "Google" now appears in the dictionary as a verb (as in "to Google something").

Search engines essentially act as filters for the wealth of information available on the internet. They allow users to quickly and easily find information that is of genuine interest or value, without the need to wade through numerous irrelevant web pages. There is a lot of filtering to do - three years ago in 2004 the number of pages in Google's index exceeded the number of people on the planet, reaching a staggering figure of more than 8 billion. With that much content out there, the internet would be essentially unworkable without search engines, and internet users would drown in a sea of irrelevant information and shrill marketing messages.

Search engines provide users with search results that lead to relevant information on high-quality websites. The operative word here is "relevant". To attain and retain market share in online searches, search engines need to make sure they deliver results that are relevant to their users’ searches. They do this by maintaining databases of web pages, which they develop by using automated programs known as "spiders" or "robots" to collect information. Search engines use complex algorithms to assess websites and web pages and assign them a ranking for relevant search phrases. These algorithms are jealously guarded and frequently updated. Google looks at more than 200 different metrics when assessing websites, including copy, in-bound links, website usability and information architecture.

What this means is that search engines provide users with the information they are looking for, and not necessarily the information that marketers would like them to see. Type the name of a major brand into Google, and you will most probably be served a wide range of search results that include not only the brand’s official website, but other websites, consumer review sites, blogs, online articles on Web 2.0 sites and press releases on news syndication channels. Of course, not all searches are for brand names. The majority of searches are for non-brand key phrases - for example, "Hong Kong luxury hotel" rather than "The Peninsula Hong Kong". With key phrases that are service or product-specific rather than brand-specific, results pages will also include many competitors, which makes acquiring a prominent position at the top of the page even more crucial.

There are two major ways to ensure a website appears in a prominent location on the major search engines for relevant key phrases: paid search (also known as pay per click or PPC) and organic Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Of the two, organic SEO tends to yield the best long-term results and the optimum return on investment, for the simple reason that internet users are four times as likely to click an organic search result as they are a PPC ad on the same results page. In a September 2006 poll by MarketingSherpa, 68.7% of marketers in the US identified SEO as yielding the best return on investment for product marketing. I will discuss paid and organic search in much more depth in a separate article. It is enough here to state that companies doing business or marketing online should look at striking a healthy balance between both techniques to make the most of the potential of marketing through major search engines.

Search engines matter because they increasingly determine the information about brands, products and services that customers access online. Being easy to find on Google, Yahoo and MSN is now as much of a marketing necessity as having a strong presence in print and broadcast media, or an effective traditional direct marketing program. And as consumers and organizations come to rely more heavily on search engines to find the goods, services and suppliers they need, the importance of search engines to modern businesses will only increase.