Consumer Insights and the Potential of Search
There is probably no book that I have read to date that does a better job of outlining the consumer research potential within search engines than The Search, by John Battelle. A good chunk of the book focuses on the rise of search engines on the web, culminating with the ascendancy of Google. However, his beginning and ending chapters on search itself give a great sense of the aggregated scope of just what all these simple clicks and queries could mean.
Like many of today’s marketing researchers, I considered myself to be a behavioralist. In other words, I believe there is more true consumer insight to be found in studying what consumers do versus what they say in response to a question. Another way to think about it is that we may learn more by looking at the questions consumers ask others, versus what we as researchers ask them. It’s search as a digital ethnography.
Search, with its billions of questions typed in search boxes, provides a clickstream of questions that reflect the wants, beliefs and concerns of a vast array of consumers. By dissecting the totality of queries, such as “best rated digital camera” or “recipes picky eaters”, we can understand the mindset of these consumers. In The Search, John Battelle describes this rich resource as the Database of Intentions:
“Link by link, click by click, search is building possibly the most lasting, ponderous, and significant cultural artifact in the history of humankind: the Database of Intentions. The Database of Intentions is simply this: the aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result. It lives in many places, but three or four places in particular – AOL, Google, MSN, Yahoo – hold a massive amount of this data. Taken together, this information represents a real-time history of post-Web culture – a massive clickstream database of desires, needs, wants, and preferences that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited for all sorts of ends.”
The consumer research potential behind the Database of Intentions has only begun to be tapped, mainly by those marketers focused on search engine optimization. The next big area is the study of search from a cultural anthropologist’s standpoint, which will lead to even richer consumer insights for market researchers working in traditional retail environments and the consumer packaged goods industry.