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Is Relevance . . . Relevant?



As we mentioned Friday, Live Search is very proud of itself for finally making its results relevant. Unfortunately, I think their relevance push was obviously too little, too late.

Are users actually concerned with relevance anymore? I’m going to argue that we’re not. We take it for granted. And really, we already know that people don’t judge search engine results on the fifty words below the results—they judge them on the brand. Whatever brand we happen to prefer, I think our default search engine is what we consider the most relevant. And yes, for many people, that is Google. But not everyone.

Google has made relevance so fundamental to search that it’s now a non-issue. There is so little difference among the relevance of search engines that being relevant isn’t a unique selling proposition or the distinguishing factor. Right now, it’s the brand. Google has associated its brand with relevance—and it’s a given that all other search engines will have to be relevant to compete. But MSN’s new relevance (and lack of branding) is not about to set it apart.

I don’t think that even a more relevant MSN—i.e., an MSN that is more relevant than Google—will ultimately be able to win the day. Users take it for granted that search engines return at least somewhat relevant results. Frankly, I think that the vast majority of users (including the millions looking for [ebay.com], [aol.com] and [myspace.com]) are simply not sophisticated enough to discern which search engine is presents the results that best address the query as they’ve typed it.

I’m not arguing that search engines should ignore relevance altogether. Of course they need to make an effort to understand the web pages they index. Even the most ardent acolyte of Googlism would one day have to turn away if Google began returning aphasic results (you type in [puppies] and get information on chrysanthemums). Search engines should constantly work to improve the relevance of their results—behind the scenes.

While touting the relevance of their results may sound impressive to search marketers (and really, I’m sure that that is a large part of the Live Search blog’s audience), it’s a far less convincing argument to the people you really need to convince—users. And so far, it’s not working.

  • http://www.thevanblog.com Steven Bradley

    What’s always been more important than relevancy in the results is the perception of relevancy in the results.

    Unless you yourself already know what’s most relevant chances are the results presented will be a mix of useful and not so useful across all engines.

    It’s the perception that one set of results is more relevant that leads you to use a particular search engine, not necessarily the actual relevancy.

  • http://www.selbourne.com Selbourne Designing

    Relevancy of results will just need to be improved upon in the times to come and thats where one SE can beat the other.

  • http://www.minicix.com minicix

    The only way for Google to loose marketshare and for its competitors to get some is Google to become really bad that users will leave it searching for something better. Like it happened in 98 when Google started to grow and AltaVista was so bad.

  • rcjordan

    >when Google started to grow and AltaVista was so bad

    Regarding AV, the truly sad part is that some in the SEO industry were in direct contact with AV engineers and they [A] lied and/or [B] were in denial. Most of the time, it was “A.”

    As for Google, times are different. We are well past the beginning of search’s own Eternal September and those who can actually gauge relevancy on a broad scale -though larger in sheer numbers- make up an increasingly smaller portion of the user base. It would take a catastrophic drop in actual relevancy before perceived relevancy would suffer among the general populace.

    Besides, all any se needs to do is keep assuring everyone that it is relevant. “People flock to certainty and adopt the certainty as their own. –Scott Adams”

  • http://www.seoserviceprovider.com Allen Taylor

    Good points, Jordan. It’s a well-known marketing principle that the company who gets there first has a distinct advantage. Other companies can come along and do it better, but if the leader of the industry has a big enough lead before that happens then the best of breed will still be playing catch up for a very long time. That’s where we are right now in search. In order for a new market leader to take over from Google, one of two things will have to happen (and maybe both): Either Google will have to screw up royally, like changing its recipe for Coca Cola, and/or someone else will have to introduce a new development that fills a market need to such an extent that Google’s advantages will become disadvantages. True semantic search would be a good example.

  • http://www.technologyevangelist.com Ed Kohler

    Until I ALWAYS click on the first result, search engines will have a ways to go in the relevance game. Are you confident enough to click “I’m feeling lucky” every time you search today?

  • Jordan McCollum

    @Ed—Actually, as I said above, “I’m not arguing that search engines should ignore relevance altogether. Of course they need to make an effort to understand the web pages they index.” The point that I made (pretty clearly, judging by most of the comments above) is that relevance isn’t a selling point for search engines anymore.

  • J

    It’s going to be very hard for MSFT to gain more search market share because Google just seems to be doing the right things.

    It’s hard to convince me to use live search because somewhere deep inside I believe Google leads search so even if MSFT did something very good, the average user probably wouldn’t notice as they would still be happy with Google.

    PS: Will live search results be more relevant than Google’s now?? Probably not.

  • http://search.net.in nmw

    Yes, I too feel that relevance cannot be a differentiator (see also http://battellemedia.com/archives/004017.php#comment_125044 )

    IMHO, Live search would do well to actuaclly deliver “live” results — other engines (such as Google) quite often return things that are either completely out of date or where the search engine’s cached copy does not match the actual data (and as webpages become more and more dynamic, such cached text may actually become less and less significant [note, BTW, that both Yahoo and Microsoft seem to be more successful than Google at indexing framesets -- which seems remarkable, considering how simple that should be]).

    I also think that search engines might do well to hire more people with expertise in how people actually search for information, rather than pretending that pseudo-scientific algorithms actually work as well as they are “advertised”. Information retrieval is essentially a HUMAN issue (and — insofar as it is a LINGUISTIC problem — also a SOCIAL issue), not merely a mathematical tally of links — in sum: information retrieval is ANYTHING BUT trivial or simplistic.