The Third Age of Search

In the beginning…

Search engines were born to index and make available “information” and the web was just one really big library – well, not that large at first actually!  But it did grow at an enormous rate and started a transformation in the way we access information, both reference material and current events.  Witness the decline, and almost certain demise, of print newspapers and the much reduced attendance at libraries.  This was the first age of search.

Then along came e-commerce.  Mostly with information products at first and many folks figured that is all it would ever be – sort-of-a library with a little bookstore stuck in the corner – but it did catch on and pretty much everything was available for purchase online.  BTW, the success of online commerce we owe as much or more to efficiencies in overnight shipping as we do payment systems and shopping carts, but that is a post for another day.  Whatever the ultimate causes, this was the second age of search.

And then came local.  As the web matured and our use of it grew, it became not just where we learned and managed information and conducted a large and growing share of commerce, but it has now become the guide to our immediate physical world as well.  Just as most people in metro areas use GPS rather than maps, nearly everyone now uses search instead of phone books.  What we call the “world wide web” is increasingly used to explore our own backyards.  We are now in the third age of search.

The three ages – informational, commercial and local – are marked not just by user behavior, but by dramatic changes in the search engines as well.  Those of you that have been in this field the dozen years that I have already know what I’m talking about, but let me refresh everyone’s mind with some key highlights.

Adwords, Ansense and Google Shopping (originally Froogle, remember?) were clear signposts of the commercial age.  Moreover, as Google went public and online commerce grew even stronger, we saw more and more of the “organic” results chewed up by paid ads.

Maps, Places and the general emphasis on mobile mark where we are now and will be for some time.  Mobile is growing for faster than anything since The Big Bang and shows no signs yet of slowing.

But what does this mean for non-local e-commerce? [as most of my long time follows are involved in]

Answering that in detail is a longer story, but there are a couple principles that have always been true that you can still use in this, and any subsequent, age.

First, don’t fight the tide.  We’ve already learned the hard lesson that clawing our way to #1 with 3 paid ads plus a comparison ad with sitelinks above us is a bad use of time, money and talent – better to focus on those places that are not as clogged with Adwords.  This is still true, plus add local to the mix. 🙁  Sure, this might mean you are driven to use more longer tail searches as that will very often yield better ROI.

Second, don’t be completely reliant on Google organic!  Sure, “free traffic” is great, but having only a single supplier of business is never a good idea, and traffic is what supplies your business.  With the growth in social media and the availability of huge traffic through paid programs, you should NOT have “all your eggs in the organic basket”.

And finally, just get better at SEO!  Sure, it sucks to be at position 1 and to be below the fold – happens in may short tail commercial terms – but just as we have been “pushed down” by paid and local, the volume of searches and the willingness of searchers to spend money online has EXPLODED.

Complain if you want, but making money online is still the most wonderful thing ever invented – even if it is a bit more complex today.

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