Pew Search Stats Don't Tell Companies What They Need to Know

Last Updated Aug 8, 2008 2:57 PM EDT

Signpost forest in Watson Lake, Yukon, CanadaThe Pew Internet & American Life Project has come out with yet more Internet search statistics -- in this case, only half of all people online use search during an average day. That's useful information, but I've also been noticing that much of what we think we know about search is concerned with what people do, but not necessarily why they do it. When companies focus too much on the what without answering the why, they run a great risk of making enormous mistakes when planning for the future.

Consider a company that sells widgets. One day management finds that red widgets are greatly outselling blue widgets and collectively declares, "Ah, ha! People want red widgets. Let's shift manufacturing accordingly." However, the reason people are ordering red is that they needed widgets and a number of big resellers had the blue models on back order, because far more people had been asking for blue than red.

The direction management has taken, based on looking at what happened but not at why, will only reinforce the perceived demand for red widgets because the company will make even fewer blue units. By not satisfying what customers are really looking for, the company leaves itself vulnerable to competitors who might enter the market with a large inventory of blue widgets and capture much of the market share.

Let's look more specifically at search. Only half of people are using search on an average day. You could interpret that fact reasonably as the industry having enormous growth opportunity, and I'd agree. But how you proceed should depend on why people act as they do. Are they looking for casual information, like a phone number or address? Are they researching something for business? Prowling for porn? Do people use different search engines for different types of information and uses? The answers can bring completely different views of important common questions, such as the following:

  • Who is "on top" in the search game?
  • What are your chances of selling a given product through a specific combination of search engine and search term?
  • Are you using the right key words to get the behavior you're looking for on the web?
Depending on the answers, and how many people give them, your strategy changes.

Unfortunately, this type of insight is seldom available in the reports you often see quoted on the web. No wonder, because such research is hardly easy to do, and understanding it takes more space and time than you'll get in a single browser page. That means you may have to undertake some directed research yourself. But to find the right way to proceed in business, that's exactly what a company needs to do.

Signpost image via Morguefile user wedhatted under standard site license.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.