Online travel website Orbitz caused somewhat of a stir recently when it acknowledged that it showed pricier hotels in search results for Mac users compared to PC users. The idea that search results would be influenced by the type of computer one uses was unsettling to some people who are worried about a company knowing too much about people on the other side of the computer screen. Also, some consumers perceived the tactic as Mac users being subjected to differential pricing. Of course, that is is not the case – Mac users are only seeing different results on the first pages of their search queries, not being charged different prices.
As a marketer and consumer, I applaud Orbitz’s data mining efforts to seek to match product options with a buyer’s characteristics. The practice is hardly new – market segmentation is a default strategy because not every buyer wants what you sell. Also, a firm has limited marketing resources; finding the most likely buyers saves the firm money and makes consumer search more efficient by being exposed to more relevant messages from advertisers. The rationale behind Orbitz’s targeting tactics is no different than what a business does when it decides it wants to air radio advertising. The company finds whose listeners’ characteristics match well with the advertiser’s target market. The company does not air commercials on every station in town; they find the most likely buyers via a station’s audience.
One of the advantages of search engine marketing for consumers is efficiency in carrying out information search. The Internet casts an unbelievably wide net – too wide to be beneficial without a means for sifting through vast data and pinpointing information that is most likely to be of interest. Marketers should follow Orbitz’s example and examine how they can better match their offerings with consumer characteristics. Opportunities exist in online and offline contact points to make interactions more relevant by revisiting how targeting decisions are made.