Relevant and useful. These terms are often used interchangeably in search marketing, but they are very different. A great Search Insider post by Gord Hotchkiss outlined this idea within the context of how recent Google updates will affect SEO practices:
“First of all, from the perspective of the user, Google’s changes mark an evolution of search beyond a tool used to search for information to one used by us to do the things we want to do. It’s moving from using relevance as the sole measure of success to incorporating usefulness.”
Useful is a step beyond relevant.
The other weekend I was building a trellis in the backyard with my two and five year old sons running around (bear with me here). I banged a nail the wrong way and needed a hammer to get it out. If I asked the two year old to grab me a hammer from the nearby tool pile, he might have returned with a claw-less ball peen. His response to my need would be relevant to our conversation, but completely useless for what I was trying to accomplish. He can only respond with a literal interpretation of my query (also, he may have also poked his eye out). However, the older son can take the next cognitive leap. He understands the context of my need based on past behavior. He’s seen me remove nails and remembers that I need the hammer with the “clawy-thing”. As he searches the nearby tools he discards the many items that fit with his indexed concept of what a hammer is and returns with the one tool I actually need.
Google Instant, search history personalization and Search Plus Your World are all Google’s attempts at being as smart as my five year old. They move search engines beyond a reference index to providing specific solutions, often before we even know what we’re looking for.
In the 2010 blog post announcing Google Instant, the company demonstrated that it understood people don’t want search-as-you-type functionality, but rather search-before-you-type predictions. Meaning Google attempts to know what you want before you do. Isn’t that the mark of excellent customer service in any industry? The hotel clerk who sees you are there for a conference provides directions to the venue without asking. The waiter who brings the dessert menu just when your business conversation runs dry. The river rafting guide who puts beer in the bus for the ride back. These people are useful, not just relevant.
The personalized search results introduced with Search Plus Your World this year provide another step from relevant to useful. The backlash to Search Plus Your World feels so familiar to the conversations we all had in 2005 when search history personalization for signed-in Google users appeared. Many people were concerned then with the “filter bubble” only showing us a narrow view of the world. Today, Search Engine Watch reports an Ask Your Target Market Google Search survey asked “Should Google’s search results be personalized based on past searches and information from social networking sites?” Forty-five percent of respondents to said no, compared to 15.5 percent who said yes.
This is the same debate we saw in 2005, and then in 2009 when search history personalization became standard even if you weren’t signed in. More useful results must be results with greater filters. Privacy issues aside, these changes are just using technology to replicate our own thought processes. We all create our own “filter bubbles” subconsciously every day. Our brains train themselves to restrict the sensory input we receive to limit our processing to the most important information. If you asked me what color the vase next to our office’s elevator was, I couldn’t tell you, despite the fact I walk by it every day. It’s not relevant or useful, so my brain doesn’t register it. Ask me how many inches are left in the nice whiskey I bought for my office? 3.5 and going fast. Our new reality is that a tool is allowing these same functions to occur in search.
Our connections to other people also mark the difference between relevant and useful. Is your old friend’s photo of your Senior Trip to Gettysburg what you’re looking for when trying to remember details of American history? No. But they’re more relevant than a stranger’s trip photos and you might take a minute to show your wife your ill-advised attempts at facial hair in high school and make her laugh. That’s always useful.
So what does the shift towards usefulness mean for digital marketers? It’s no longer enough to be the most relevant- you must also be the most useful. Careful placement of keywords and other traditional SEO tactics help signal relevance to search engine’s crawlers. Engagement and sharing of a site or piece of content signals usefulness. This means you have to put in the work, creating content people actually find useful.
So fetch me my hammer!
No not that one…