Spot the difference - 42 years of search

It’s hard for some of us to remember our pre-internet pre-Google pre-mobile lives, and of course impossible for most born in the 90’s to contemplate it.

Such is our intimate familiarity, absolute reliance and all-pervading influence it’s not surprising either.

I started my advertising career in 1996 in directory ad sales – the original analogue search engines.

I worked for Thomson Local Directories as a field sales rep, and would move from area to area, speaking to an A to Z array of businesses. From accountants to zoos, I’d try and get them to enhance their listing and get noticed when people were looking for their services.

It was sometimes incredibly hard, sometimes very easy but always fascinating meeting the myriad of small businesses that make up the backbone of the UK economy. The consequence of their advertising working or not could have huge impact on their lives – and for many it was their sole source of business, so quite a responsibility.

Has much changed in the last twenty two years?

Let’s take a look:

1. Getting on to page one

This has always been on the agenda and quite understandably so. In paper based directories there were a few tricks to get under the heading ranging from naming your business to Aardvark right through to putting full stops in front of the company name (which also bizzarely worked). Beyond this, as today you could pay your way to the top with larger expensive landscape ads given preference.

2. The preference for organic

We know that today’s online searchers give more credence to organic listings that have earnt their way to page one of Google.

Interestingly in paper directories some businesses (especially sole traders) preferred their free listings to paid ad space as they reasoned that successful businesses didn’t need to advertise!

3. Keyword selection

This remains a big issue - back then you had pre designated headings which caused advertisers headaches and a lot more budget – did you choose ‘washing machine sales’ or ‘domestic appliances’ ?

We continually have to second guess the way that people search. As an interesting parallel some advertisers would purposely have a presence under multiple headings to cover all the bases, exactly as today’s long tail search strategy tries to do.

4. Getting noticed

Tight parameters of today’s search ads make ad design easily automatable but restrict creativity. In paper based directories we had formulas to follow (Headline, Image, Yellow space, Logo, Copy, Border). Armed with my book of clipart, I’d design ads on paper in the customer’s front room. From a sales point of view, brevity of copy meant less space and less revenue, so more was better. We’d often throw in a few ‘’big enough to cope, small enough to care’’ style lines to justify the use of ad space.

5. Pay per click

One of the most beautiful things about Adwords is accountability. The ability to know exactly cause and effect is wonderful (…if you only look at last click at least). With paper based directories we’d subsidise the use of unique telephone numbers to make sure that we got credit for generating those enquiries. Talking the language of PPC at least has been around for a while.

6. Agility

The other amazing thing about Adwords is the ability to continually tinker/refine your activity. Test and learn ad infinitum. Unfortunately the shelf life of a directory was 12 months – that’s a lot of water under the bridge! Imagine using generic copy today and not touching it for a year.

7. Local is best

Much is made of proximity search but the Thomson Local’s entire premise was that finding local services suits everyone best. In our mobile first age, less people recognise local dialling codes but 25 years ago you could instantly spot an out of towner.

8. A virtual monopoly

The first UK Yellow Pages was published in Brighton in 1996 (where the last ever edition will be distributed in January 2019), and Google started in 1998 and introduced Adwords in 2001.

Both achieved undisputed status as a dominant supplier, and both became part of our vernacular. ‘Yellow pages’ was interchangeable with the word ‘directory’, which made life as a Thomson directories rep frustrating.

I had advertisers say that ‘Not one person had mentioned Thomson’ …surprise, surprise. We talk about Googling things more often as finding, or looking it up.

9. The response loop

Let’s not underestimate the impact of being able to click ads on your mobile. That heavy old directory sat next to your landline (with possibly the phonebook chained to a public phone box). Taking search into the real world unleashed huge possibility – AR image recognition is coming.

10. The universe

The old directories set the geographic boundaries of your search universe. If you were in the Putney book, you were not in the Lambeth one. While this works for plumbers, we don’t think twice about sourcing obscure things from places we’d also need Google maps to find.

So it seems that there are huge differences and yet some striking similarities.

When we look to the future, search will increasingly turn to voice as an interface.

In 1966 voice search meant asking ‘‘where’s the Yellow Pages?’’, and now it’s more likely ‘Alexa ….’

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