The Engine That Could

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According to Yahoo!'s newest marketing tool, the “Yahoo! Buzz Index,� Britney Spears, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods were the most popular folks in the ether back in April. And, at least virtually, the magic of Harry Potter kicked rapper Eminem's butt.

Six years ago, Yahoo! was nothing more than a simple list of Web sites, a place to go to search the maze of an Internet that was still in its infancy. But as the Net matured, so did Yahoo!. The Santa Clara-based giant reinvented itself, becoming more than a mere navigation tool, and offering scores of services, such as e-mail, games, and news. And now the search engine is morphing again. It has become a data mining operation, providing a suite of corporate programs under the umbrella of “Fusion Marketing� services. Last October, the company unveiled the latest addition to those services: “Yahoo! Buzz Index,� which gives a snapshot of “what's hot� and “what's not� through a daily calculation of what visitors to the site are searching for. Says Diana Easley, Yahoo! Buzz producer: “This was an idea that has been kicking around inside the company for a while. We have all this data that we needed to make more relevant for our advertisers.�

In simplest terms, the Yahoo! Buzz Index score represents the total number of unique users who search for a specific subject or term. The service ranks the most popular search subjects each day, listing leaders in music, movies, sports, and TV, among others. A subscription-only business site tracks more than 30 categories, such as mobile devices and toys. Data is then arranged by gender and age group (under 18, 18 to 34, 35 to 54, 55-plus). Clients can opt for customized daily, weekly, or monthly reports that include the gender, age, occupation, industry, and interests of users searching for a specific term on Yahoo!, as well as other reports that give instant feedback on every online ad, including how many folks saw an ad, who they are (at least demographically), and how many went one step further to the all-important purchase phase.

Yahoo! wouldn't disclose its pricing structure for marketing services, but it has signed some high-profile takers, including Pepsi. The company used the Buzz to track its “Pepsi Stuff� campaign where devotees of the soft drink collect select bottle caps in exchange for goodies like video games. Pepsi Stuff made its first offline appearance four years ago, and the company said it didn't have a “true handle� on the campaign's performance until the conclusion of the promotion. But with the Yahoo! Buzz Index, “we can track PepsiStuff.com's relevance to consumers in hours instead of weeks, therefore we can make adjustments to the program quickly,� says John Vail, director, digital media and marketing, Pepsi-Cola Company. Instead of waiting for people to mail in their bottle caps and their merchandising requests, for example, the Buzz Index gave company executives an instant snapshot of what consumers considered to be “hot� prizes — such as Faith Hill's CDs. Tracking the promotion online via Yahoo!'s Buzz Index allowed the beverage giant to simplify its tracking and fulfillment procedures, Vail says.

Measuring the popularity of brands and ad campaigns isn't necessarily new. Yet, in doing so, Yahoo! is reinventing itself in an attempt to become more relevant to marketers. “Portals, search engines, Web sites, and e-mail providers are all looking to mine their databases for information to either buttress their pitch to advertisers or to sell the information,� says Laurence Gold, editor and publisher of the Barrington, Illinois-based marketing newsletter, Inside Research.

For Yahoo!, the undisputed leader of the search engine pack, it makes good fiscal sense to expand its services says Kathy Heany, an analyst at Bluestone Capital, an investment banking firm and brokerage house in New York City. Despite the fact that Yahoo! met it's own lowered expectations, its first quarter 2001 revenues of $180.2 million were $50 million lower than the same period last year, according to Heany. “Anything Yahoo! can do to connect with their advertisers is going to help the business grow,� she says.

About 75 percent of Yahoo!'s more than $1 billion in revenues last year came from advertising and marketing services. Although the search engine has more than 3,500 advertisers, just how much the entire operation may grow is debatable. “They need to better combine traditional marketing and media with their Internet expertise,� says Heany. “They aren't quite there yet, but there is certainly something to be said for having 190 million monthly users.� UBS Warburg analyst Chris Dickson says that Yahoo!, while an “extraordinary new-media brand,� has one major problem: It lacks the multimedia strength and leverage opportunities of an AOL Time Warner or a Disney, both of which combine the “best� of old and new media opportunities, making those properties very attractive to marketers. “I think it's going to be a matter of clients asking ‘What else can you do for me?’� says Dickson. “All Yahoo! can give at this point is some marketing services and banner ads.�

Still, the company's Buzz Index may be the answer for some of its clients. For example, the index could prove useful to the entertainment industry and others looking for a “quick take� on what's hot, says Norman Lehoullier, co-managing director of Grey Interactive, a partner company of New York City-based marketing/communications firm, Grey Global Group. Grey Interactive builds online content and interactive marketing products for clients, such as Kraft and Procter & Gamble. Although Lehoullier has yet to use the client-based product, he does visit the free consumer-targeted Buzz Index site several times a week to get insight into what folks are talking about. Marketers, he believes, would be “foolish� not to pay attention to “new tools� like the Buzz Index. “As marketers, we are always looking at different ways of getting insights into populations,� he says.

The Yahoo! Buzz Index operates on a fairly simple premise. Based on its search engine features, Yahoo! Buzz aggregates and ranks the search queries of the site's more than 190 million monthly visitors, including the 67 million “active, registered� Yahoo! users who willingly gave up their demographic DNA when registering for the site's services, such as Yahoo! mail or My Yahoo! According to the company, the search engine reaches about 60 percent of all Internet wanderers worldwide, including 70 percent of employees in the 500 largest companies in the U.S.

Each Yahoo! Buzz Index rating point is equal to about .001 percent of unique users conducting searches on the site. So, for example, a Yahoo! Buzz Index score of 500 for, say, Britney Spears, translates to .5 percent of all users searching on Yahoo!. Limp Bizkit's Buzz score of 40 means that .004 percent of all users were looking for the alternative rockers.

The index further stratifies searches to better represent the context in which a term was used. This context is determined by observing what a user clicks on after the initial search. For example, a search for Reebok can be categorized correctly within sports apparel or footwear. The correct categorization is determined when the user clicks on either footwear or the apparel content. The index will assign scores for terms “across all categories,� which represents the total number of unique users searching for that term. A score “within a category� represents only the Buzz for a specific category. So, if Reebok achieves a score of 5 “across all categories� that represents all searches for Reebok. If Reebok has a footwear score of 3, that represents all Reebok searches that have been categorized under footwear. It also means that three-fifths of all users searching for Reebok are searching for footwear.

Sometimes, however, you don't need sophisticated marketing tools to tell you what's hot among certain demographics. Take, for example, Jennifer Lopez and the dress she wore to the Oscars this year. J-Lo, Jennifer Lopez, and other variations on the same theme accounted for 8 in 10 of the top Buzz terms the following Monday. “Most of the searches came from men,� says Easley, with a deadpan expression. “That's what the stats showed, but I think we could have assumed that intuitively.� Which just goes to show: Who needs market research, when you have J-Lo.

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