Does E-Commerce Need Search Engines?

Many an e-commerce company has spent untold amounts of time and money making sure their Web sites nail down marquee spots on the results pages of various search engines.

Consultants have even developed a mini-industry by promising to get companies better placement and by piggybacking small fries onto more popular sites by way of well-placed keywords and tags.

Too bad it’s all going to be a waste of time before long.

That’s right, when it comes to the Internet of the future, search engines will no longer be 800-pound gorillas guarding the doors like big scary bouncers. They’ll be more like dinosaurs, gone but not forgotten remnants of an earlier age.

A Different Web

I’m convinced that the more a person shops online, the less he or she relies on search engines. First, we become creatures of habit, running a well-worn path toward the e-tailers we deem worthy of our money.

Second, over time, we learn to speak — or type — the language of the Net. In fact, it’s often faster and easier to find a company’s Web site through the guess method — if it’s not Acme.com, maybe it’s Acmecorp.com — than it is by plugging in a word to a search engine that returns hundreds or thousands of responses about Road Runner cartoons.

Third, the Internet has plenty of sites that reduce the need for random searching. Sites like Suite101 and About.com have morphed into portals that feed users their desired slice of the jumbled information pie.

At these portals, information is catalogued, organized and ranked at reference sites that have already done all that searching for you. The useless pages full of typos, outdated information and dead links get discarded before you even see them.

ICANN, So You Can

Larger organizations are also diminishing the role of search engines. For example, as much as it’s a target of derision, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) deserves some credit for streamlining the once-wild Web.

The organization has made an effort to bring standards to the Internet on a global level. When viewed through a prism of order and sanity, even ICANN’s alleged favoring of corporate interests becomes somewhat understandable, albeit no less offensive to Internet purists.

Though it sometimes takes one step back before taking two steps forward, ICANN’s progress has ultimately nibbled away at the demand for search engines.

Big Names Rule

Above all, search engines are being rendered obsolete by the commercialization of the Web.

What happens in a commercial world? Recognizable brand names win. The same thing is happening on the Internet. Amazon, eBay and Yahoo! are not nearly as logical as Bookshop.com, Auctions.com or Portal.com, but they have come to be successful stand-ins for those generic tags.

After all, we’ve just heard that Madonna.com truly belongs to Madonna the singer/dancer/would-be movie star. This ruling makes no sense on an intellectual level. How Madonna can claim to be the one and only rightful owner of a centuries-old name is baffling. And how a judge ever saw fit to grant her the domain name is beyond me.

But as much as I hate to admit it, there is some semblance of order and ease of use in the new brand-name Internet. People seeking Madonna information will find it at Madonna.com, just as people will find books at Amazon and auctions at eBay.

Improved Performance

Admittedly, it’s true that search engines have improved over time. Give them credit for that. But how much? Have they kept pace with the changes in the Web?

I think not. Yes, they’ve found ways to refine searches, to eliminate some of the sites only remotely connected to your search objective. Plus, for the truly obscure, like trying to track down the kid who sat next to you in fourth grade, search engines are as good a bet as any other Web option — for now.

But it’s not enough. Search engines aren’t even that reliable. While some have incorporated human subjectivity to improve their results, others have gone the other direction and sold the top spot on their sites to the companies most willing to pay to be first.

Of course, in the end, it will be the Web’s own little version of natural selection that will tell the tale. Whatever you think of search engines, the Web has a habit of weeding out those operations that don’t manage to give the consumer what they want in a timely, efficient and simple sort of way.

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