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Where Is Search Going: More With Yahoo's Shashi Seth

In part one of my interview with Shashi Seth, the Senior VP of Search Products at Yahoo, we looked at what Yahoo’s current thinking is about search since the Yahoo/Bing integration. But the point of this series of columns is not where search is, but where search is going. And that’s where we’ll jump off today.

Soon, my conversation with Shashi steered into the area of how search might morph as more searches are done from platforms other than the typical desktop box environment. Obviously, mobile search is a hot topic, but I personally have been amazed at how my connected experience has changed on the roomier yet still tactile iPad. It’s a much different type of engagement —more leisurely and more serendipitous. I tend to browse and become less task oriented on my iPad. It’s the type of device you pick up to kill time or entertain yourself. And search in that environment can look significantly different than the typical task driven “in and out” nature of a search launched from a desktop keyboard. As our online time splinters across more connected devices, do we have to tailor experiences to match?

Seth: If you have the kind of interactivity that a smartphone like an Android phone or an iPhone offers in terms of the touch interface—the ability to move from app to app—and if you had a larger screen, would you be able to do significantly more? I think the iPad has definitely answered that question. Obviously, you can do a lot more in terms of experiences like reading a magazine, having apps that give you more meaningful space and therefore you can accomplish a lot more. Given the interactivity of these tablets, you can build an experience that is what you’d want the next generation of desktop experiences to look like. And that’s how we’re starting to treat the iPad, to say what if you took the approach of actually building apps on iPad, seeing how they work out, and then learning from that and then bringing that back to both your traditional smartphone experiences and desktop experiences? And it definitely opens up a range of possibilities that have never existed before.

Of course, if search experiences change, so does the opportunities advertisers have to present themselves in compelling and relevant ways. Shashi soon steered the conversation in that direction.

Seth: It brings up another point—actually—a couple of points. I think the display advertising experience on a search app on an iPad offers up the kind of advertising that even traditional internet display advertising has lacked. It’s the kind of advertising that you see in a magazine like GQ or Vogue, where ads and content start blending so well together that users don’t even think of them as ads, they actually think of it as content. And that’s why I think that the next generation of advertising on mobile devices is completely going to blend display and search advertising, meaning the targeting can be done in one way or the other, for an audience or for keywords—but the kind of formats that you see on these devices are going to be significantly different and will probably bring in new kinds of advertisers that have shied away from this platform traditionally. If you think about a brand like Hugo Boss or Louis Vuitton, they traditionally have never advertised on the internet because they’ve never gotten the kind of canvas that is needed. But if you bring this new kind of canvas that we’re talking about, which could work especially well in an iPad or even an iPhone/Android kind of device, I think the world is your canvas at that point.

One of the biggest challenges with search marketing is that it has struggled to move beyond it’s direct response roots. While people use search to research all types of potential purchases, it’s easiest to measure search’s performance when it comes directly before a transaction or “hard” conversion event. Because of this, Google and the other engines have had difficulties attracting the branding dollars from sexier media such as magazines and television. But a different browsing experience could lead to a different type of search ad, as Seth points out.

I don’t believe, however, that we should be in a rush to emulate a TV or magazine ad on a search platform. One of the beautiful things about a search ad is that it’s (or should be) highly relevant. And that makes it more useful. TV and magazine ads are rarely relevant, no matter how high the production values. And so, perhaps, a richer search experience could combine the best of both worlds: high emotional engagement and on-target relevancy, leading to ads that actually add value through their usefulness.

But the ability to target ads to the right audience based on interpretation of their intent and an assumption of what it is they want to do is not an easy thing to master. It requires search marketers to embrace data in a new way, using it to delve into the psyches and motivations of their marketplace. This isn’t simply about slicing faceless numbers to gain maximum share. It’s about nailing intent with precision. And, with a proliferation of devices, that intent could vary significantly from a desktop to a tablet to a smartphone. Shashi provides his view:

Seth: I think it requires that marketers become much more data-centric in their analyses and their targeting, and that the kind of data that publishers like us have to bring to the table for marketers is going to be significantly more sophisticated than has been done in the past. For example, knowing and providing details about users, their habits, what kind of content are they likely to interact with, what their needs might be, and then changing that advertising and marketing message to fit that individual user is going to become increasingly important. And it’s even more important to do it in the right way on the right device. For example, connected devices like the iPad or a connected TV. I think the kind of ads that you bring to the table have to be very different in each of those scenarios and have to tie in the user’s context, the intent, the device, the location, and so on, which makes for a pretty complex landscape. Much like we’ve talked about search changing, I think advertising is going to change a significant amount as well.

With change comes opportunity. Will Google continue to dominant, or does this change in habits allow for an accompanying change in the order of the search world as well? As I mentioned to Shashi, this could be a brand new horse race. And so I asked him to handicap the contenders, starting with Microsoft…

Seth: Lots of great assets for sure. Microsoft is doing the heavy lifting on the back end side for search for us, and therefore clearly are in the game and in it for the long haul. I see them not so well positioned in other spaces like mobile for example, but nevertheless definitely have the technical capability to pull off.

Then came Shashi’s own mount—Yahoo…

Seth: Somebody like Yahoo! has a lot of great assets. Our Asian assets, which is where I think the bulk of new users and new use cases are going to come about—at least I’m banking on that—but also the fact that we have a pretty robust ad platform and we’re probably the first one to have started to blend search and display advertising. A significant amount of work has gone on in that area and we’re betting big on it. And definitely with the kind of media assets that we can bring to the table like sports, finance, news, etc., I think the blending of that, of local and listings and search, all that starts to make a lot of sense in this new mobile world that we’ve talked about.

I think that is the key opportunity and we as a company are definitely pushing hard on that angle, to say, “Hey, who better than us to own the content and the communications and the search pieces all under one umbrella and bring it to this new world which is going to be very mobile-centric?” And the landscape changes significantly with that.

Can Google, the 800 pound gorilla, be fleet of foot enough to compete in this race?

Seth: It changes the game significantly and, as you probably have heard in the interviews before, I think they have a vested interest to continue down the path that they have invested in, and that path is much more around one search box, one user, and one form of advertising. Right? I think it’s a lot easier for somebody like Yahoo! to shift, somebody like Apple to shift the game a lot, but I think somebody like Google, there’s a lot invested and a lot more to lose. So we’ll have to see how they react to the new world.

And finally, the dark horse—Apple…

Seth: Apple is in a very interesting place because they’re truly a platform play. They clearly have no intent of getting into the content or the search business themselves, but they bring a lot of capabilities to bear that people like Yahoo! and Microsoft and Google need, and clearly with the separation between Google and Apple that is going to be a different kind of war. Somebody like Yahoo! could definitely leverage some of these assets very well and play really well in that space.

And so, this marks my last column for 2010. Best wishes for a great holiday and we’ll see you again in 2011 with more on where search might be headed in the near future!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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