A friend and well-respected comms pro, Paul Sutton, recently embarked on an experiment to see if he can survive two full months without using a search engine. I asked him to share what he’s learned so far.
Ask yourself a question: how long do you think you could go without using an internet search engine? I did some research among my friends, colleagues and networks, and two thirds of the people I asked said that, on average, they use a search engine more than ten times per day. They don’t think about it, they just do it.
It was while I was on a train heading into London that the idea of #NoSearch came to me. Looking around my carriage, about three quarters of the passengers had their heads buried in HTCs, iPads and laptops. And it struck me that all of these people – my friends, my contacts, me, you – we’re all totally reliant on what Google tells us. In fact, more than that, we have 100% trust and, arguably, blind faith in the results that we get back when we click the search button. This gives search engines immense power over us and the way we perceive the world. So I decided to give up Yahoo! and Bing for two entire months; to go Google cold turkey.
Is search behaviour changing?
The #NoSearch project was borne from a desire to investigate just how vital search engines have become to our everyday lives and whether it’s even possible to function without them. I’m intrigued by the impact that the web is having on society, and I wanted to see whether social media is empowering collective intelligence as much as it’s purported to be doing; whether a social network can act as a ‘personal search engine’. So during June and July I intend to find out whether I can get by online by forgoing search engines in favour of my online networks.
Two weeks in and it’s already throwing up some really interesting areas for further thought and investigation. Google Instant (the feature that auto-suggests websites as you type a search term) quickly became my nemesis, to the point where I had to disable it. I’m not stopping myself visiting URLs that I already know, but typing them into the browser was proving a nightmare as I was effectively performing a search every time I did so. It highlighted to me how much search has changed from ‘pulling’ information from the web to having information ‘pushed’ to us via search engines, and is further evidence of Google’s power and influence. But do you ever question the results Google gives you? How often to you go beyond page one of the SERPS? Think about it…
The power of social networks
From a social media perspective, Twitter quickly became my lifeline. Facebook just doesn’t cut it when you need information in any sort of speed, and Twitter beats it hands down for expediency. And the people who use Twitter are also different; they’re more clued up, more reactive, more socially-savvy. Maybe there’s a learning there for social marketers?
I’ve also started to see great value in social bookmarking, an area I’ve never previously engaged with very heavily. Delicious, Diigo and Stumbleupon hold such a wealth of valuable information, and while they can’t compete with Google for finding a website URL, they’re good for information.
Time as a commodity
One word sums up my #NoSearch experience so far, however: frustrating. Living without search engines is, believe it or not, not that difficult if you have a network of any moderate size and a bunch of reliable and bookmarked web resources. But the time it takes me to find anything is starting to drive me nuts. With search engines you can be on a relevant website on any given topic within a few seconds. Without them it takes minutes at a time to dig out information. And when you’re as busy as I am that’s a lot of wasted time. You don’t realise how valuable time is until you don’t have any because it’s taken up with things you know you could do a lot quicker.
So have I been tempted to quit already? You bet! But in actuality, that’s more through impatience than a real need for Google. So I’m going to stick with it. I suspect that first search in August will be a delicious moment and I’ll probably start dreaming about it soon, but hopefully I’ll have a learned a hell of a lot about online behaviour and social media by the time that comes around.
You can follow the #NoSearch project on Posterous, Twitter and Audioboo. Paul Sutton is Head of Social Communications at BOTTLE, blogs at www.thesocialweb.co.uk and can be found on Twitter as @ThePaulSutton