The search for change - Yext CEO wants answers to Google's ad fetish

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan December 9, 2020 Audio version
Summary:
Google is an ad engine, not a search engine, says Yext's Howard Lerman. That's bad for business and needs to change.

question mark
(Pixabay)

When your customers have questions about you, do you want to give them answers or do you want to give them ads?

That’s a crucial question for all organizations, insists Howard Lerman, CEO of Yext, a company he founded on the principle that ‘the ultimately authority on a business should be the business itself’. What that means in real world terms is Yext wants to re-imagine traditional ideas of search, in particular how that’s put into practice by Google on the basis that:

Google isn't really a search engine, it's an ads engine. In other words, it's incentivized to deliver a slew of ads, not a direct answer to the question.

He cites the example of performing a Google search for information on Sleep Number mattresses and pillows, a popular US brand that specialises in offering custom sleep solutions to meet individual needs. Putting in a simple query on a Sleep Number product results in 14 ads above the fold before an organic search result, he says.

Another instance comes from using Google to check the rewards balance on a Krispy Kreme’s loyalty card, which is in fact the most commonly asked question of the firm, says Lerman:

Google delivers what appears to be an answer from the brand, but if you look carefully, it's not. It's a random third party and while it's not labeled an ad, the experience is all about selling you something and if you engage on the site you get hit with pop-up ads.

Why would Google reward this strange site and its very annoying sales tactics and ads ahead of an answer? A direct answer from Krispy Kreme itself - and this is ironic because even the co-founders of Google denounced this in one of their early research papers in 1998 - I quote, they said, ‘We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.’

They were right. Brand search queries reward the highest bidding advertiser, so it becomes a numbers game. How much does a brand have to pay to get in front of a customer asking for them and then how many ads does a customer have to navigate before getting the answer that they want?

Answering the call for change

What’s needed, suggests Lerman, is what the Head of Digital at a Yext prospect company summed up when he said, ’Oh gosh, what I'd love is a Google for my own Web site’. To satisfy that desire requires change however:

The world is hungry for a big breakthrough in search. Search is critical. Every customer experience starts with a question and, when it comes to branded search, there's really two places where searches can happen, either on a company's website or in Google. But billions of times a day brand websites fail to answer the most basic questions, so their customers, at that exact moment of intent, bounce over to Google to continue their quest for an answer. When websites keep failing you and failing you over and over again, you learn to just start your customer journey on Google.

Yext’s most recent response to highlight this situation and provide an alternative is an initiative it’s calling Answers, Not Ads. This seeks specifically to address the opening question above - what is it that you want to provide your customer with? Lerman explains:

To us, the answer is obvious, but the reality is that the only way a brand can compete with Google is to offer a Google-like experience. Think of it like their own Google on their own site. That is not easy. Yes, site search exists, but it's not that modern. It’s index-based, meaning it functions to deliver links that send you to another page on a World Wide Web site. That’s ‘Search 1.0’, it’s how Google used to work.

But Google modernized. They built a knowledge graph that continues all of the facts that they know about the world and their relationships, that combine with natural language understanding to present their users with answers. That’s where we come in. Our Answers search engine is the breakthrough that gives brands a modern search experience so they can take that customer journey to deliver answers, not ads, to every customer question.

Yext’s solution is built around the idea that modern search has three layers:

  • A knowledge graph that is, in Lerman’s words “a brain-like database” which contains facts represented as entities and their relationships.
  • A foundation for answers to be derived from an understanding of natural language.
  • A dynamic interface that allows users to transact with the answer itself.

This is, Lerman admits, the model Google used to dominate consumer search, but he argues that there’s an opportunity here for millions of businesses to ‘win back’ branded search for themselves and ultimately their own customers:

We know that delivering official answers makes a big difference, not only because more and more brands are adding Answers to their website, but also from their own experience. Almost immediately after launching Yext Answers on our own website, branded searches for Yext declined [an] astounding 34% on Google. Now you might think that's a negative, but the beauty is that, at the same time, the number of searches on our own site increased by the same amount as the decline on Google.

This shows that branded searches on Google and searches on a brand's own site are intricately linked. It's kind of an obvious point, but when you give people a great site search experience, a great search experience on your site, they come back. They get trained [and] they come back again and again.

That said, it’s going to take time to get the message across, he admits, but that in turn means lots of opportunity for Yext:

Transforming the broken world of search is a long game. We are only in the top-half of the first inning.

My take

Given that last comment, Yext has made good progress with the latest iteration of its vision. In its most recent quarter, it cites the closure of 86 paid - as opposed to trial - Answers deals. Yext already has some high-profile logos on its list of users, including the likes of Jaguar Land Rover, fashion retailer New Look and Campbell’s Soup among many others. This leads Lerman to predict:

We can get out there, we can land with this product, and we can upsell it….We’re seeing budgets come from a multiple sets of executives. It could be from the Chief Digital Officer, it could be from the Chief Marketing Officer, it could be from the CIO, it could be from the Chief Experience Officer.

That being the case, there’s a broad potential appeal here across businesses and an identifiable issue to address in ‘fixing’ Search and driving increased sales conversions by extension.

There are other benefits that are likely to appeal to budget-holders, not least of which is in the areas of customer service, specifically deflection of inquiries. If a customer can ask a question, search site and get a quick answer, not a stream of ads, that individual is less inclined to need to connect with or chat to a customer service person, thereby saving the company money. 

Returning to his Krispy Kreme exemplar, Lerman says that that firm has seem a reduction in call center volume of 42% since deploying Answers. Another public-domain citation comes from mobile phone network Three. In its first two weeks of implementing Answers, the provider also claims to have seen a 42% reduction in customer support contacts as more accurate responses to search queries have increased.

That ‘customer deflection’ angle is a powerful sales driver and one with near-universal, easily-understandable appeal to most organizations. As ever, when in doubt, talk to the wallet!