I'd have to say I've been amazed by the response we've had to our first forays into researching the behavior patterns of internet searchers. Since we released them in March and April, almost 3000 marketers have downloaded our two white papers. They've been quoted in dozens of forums and blogs. Articles have been written in almost every major search engine marketing portal. And it seems that our message is getting through to more people.
Search marketers have to step back from our obsession with tactics and look at the bigger strategic picture. We have to understand behaviors of our target customers. We have to fully explore the nature of their online experience. We have to understand the potential of this marketing channel fully. If we don't, how can we hope to pass along value to our clients?
Yet, to date, as Danny Sullivan has said, "I always find it amazing that with all the importance of search engines, including the advertising money going to them, there's seemingly little research done on how we interact with them." This isn't acceptable. It's incumbent on our industry to take up this challenge and deliver.
Understanding is the first step towards strategy. To that end, Danny has added a number of sessions to Search Engine Strategies in San Jose that deal more with the strategy of search, rather than the tactics (appropriately, given the name of the conference). Well done! And after a virtual search no show at Ad:Tech in San Francisco, it appears that JD Events is planning to include at least a few sessions in New York on consumer behavior, brand strategy and the marketing opportunities available through search.
So, in the spirit of my little diatribe, we'll continue to probe into the mind of the searcher by looking at the results of a focus group we conducted earlier this year. Way back when we first looked at our findings on searchers, we explored the complexity of the average search interaction, as well as the introduction of brand and the anonymity threshold.
As we said back then, no two people seem to search exactly the same. We did notice, however, that there are distinctive patterns to search behavior. Today, we want to dig a little further into that and identify the four types of searchers we saw in the study. We'll also look at when search engines are most likely to be used in a buying cycle .Finally, I'll look at what it was on a search results page that seemed to catch the consumers eye, and how they reacted to landing pages when they did click through.
Different Search Patterns
In the past, search marketers have tended to make overall assumptions about effective tactics with search engines. These assumptions can determine strategies for placement, the text that appears in the listing, and the use of organic vs sponsored listings. In observing the members of the group, it became clear that there are four distinct types of searchers, and a different marketing approach must be taken with each.
Scan and Clickers
In the focus group, these were all younger males. They tend to do a quick scan of the top 3 or 4 listings and make a choice from there. If it's a commercial search, they will often scan sponsored links as well. They don't read titles or descriptions carefully, and tend to click on results quickly. In the observed search interactions, the average time before clicking on a link was 8.5 seconds. If nothing relevant appears above the fold, they assume it won't get any more relevant by scrolling down, so they launch another search.
2 Step Scanners
Again, in the focus group, these were all males, but had a higher average age (42) than the Scan and Clickers. This group generally does a quick scan of the top results to see if anything "jumps out", but if they don't see anything, they will do a more deliberate scan up and down all the organic results. During this second scan, they will read titles and descriptions more thoroughly. They generally go right for the organic results, but may scan sponsored results after a quick look at the organic listings.
This was the largest component of the focus group, with 41.6% of the participants matching this profile. It was 60% female, 40% male. The Deliberate Researcher reads through all the organic titles and descriptions on the results page before making a choice. They tend to be thorough in their assessment and consider their options carefully before making their choice. If there is a profile that is likely to go to the second page of results, they would be found in this group or the 1,2,3 Searchers. They also tend to skip over sponsored listings and go right to the organic ones.
Like Deliberate Researchers, this group does read titles and descriptions carefully. The difference is that rather than reading all the results and then making a choice, this searcher goes through the listings sequentially, starting with number one. If they find a listing that seems to be what they're looking for, they'll click through to it, perhaps never to return. Like the Deliberate Researcher, they usually skip sponsored listings and go right to the organic ones. In the focus group, it was predominantly female.
Men vs Women
We noted a marked variance in the search patterns of men and women generally. On the average, men make decisions quicker, spend less time on sites, are more likely to have pre-established "favored" vendor sites that they use in the search process and show less resistance to sponsored listings. Women tended to be more deliberate in reading search results, spend more time with their searches and spend more time on sites before making decisions.
Although we're speaking of genders as an aggregate group here, the main reason for the variance is the relatively high incidence of Scan and Clickers and 2 Step Scanners in the male participants in the group. No women participating in the session matched either of these profiles. We believe this is an anomaly based on the small size of the sample, but we do believe these two profiles are much more likely to be male.
This marked variation in search patterns has to be understood by marketers in formulating their marketing plans.. When looking for reasons why women as a group appear to search differently than men, we believe the reason is analogous to distinct shopping patterns in both genders. For the sake of clarity, think about shoppers entering a mall. Some go directly to a store, buy an item and leave. When applying this behavior to a search engine, these would be similar to the Scan and Clickers or the 2 Step Scanners. Others shop several stores, compare prices and deliberate over the buying decision. These individuals enjoy the shopping experience. Again, drawing parallels to the search profiles, this group would be similar to the Deliberate Researchers or the 1,2,3 Searchers. I think most agree that the first group is generally predominantly male, while the second group is predominantly female. Understanding the different searching (and shopping) patterns in a target customer group is essential to formulating an effective strategy.
Researchers vs Buyers
We found distinctive differences in both research initiatives in the way searches are actually conducted, depending on whether users are in the buying or research phase.
Preliminary findings from the survey show that users are much more likely to use a search engine during the research phase of the buying funnel. Usage of search engines drops off as the user draws closer to the actual purchase transaction. This was echoed in the focus group, where 68% of participants indicated they would use a search engine to help research a purchase, but only 41% indicated that they would purchase an item online, and only 28% indicated they would use a search engine to help them make this purchase.
It's important for marketers to understand where in the buying funnel their customers are most likely to use a search engine to help in their purchase. If it is primarily in the research phase, than searchers are looking for distinctly different things than they would be if they were using a search engine to make a purchase. The marketer may be trying to capture a click through by promoting free shipping or discounted prices, while the consumer is looking for information on product features, consumer reviews and competitive comparisons.
What Captures the Click and Conversion?
Listing Click Throughs
As we touched on above, it became apparent that different things were required to capture a click through with a researcher as opposed to a buyer. We've listed them with these distinctions in mind.
In looking at what typically caught the Researchers eye and prompted a click through, the following items were mentioned. They are listed in order of importance for the user.
For a purchaser, some of the items are the same, but different factors are also introduced. Again, these are listed in order of importance for the user.
In watching what happens after a user clicked through to a site, it became clear that the searcher is clear about what they want to see on a site and that the decision is made quite quickly. Again, men tended to make these decisions faster (about 10 seconds) while women were a little more deliberate (18 seconds). And, as with the search itself, there were distinct variances in the factors researchers were looking for, as compared to purchasers.
What Researchers Looked for on a Landing Page (in order of importance)
What Purchasers looked for on a Landing Page (in order of importance)
The Last Word...Almost
I started off this column by saying how surprised I was at how popular the white papers have been with marketers. To be honest, I've also been surprised by how they've generally been accepted without questioning of methodology or results. The one thing about research is that its accuracy is always in question.
This was a focus group, which is the most intuitive but also the least accurate of all research approaches. Yet I've seen the findings of the study stated as fact in forums and blogs across the Net. While flattering, I also find it a little troubling. This was one attempt to shine a little light into the black hole of search engine user behavior. It was never intended to be complete or definitive. We expected it to be questioned. We fully intend this to be a first step, and would hope others would rise to the challenge and start to peer into the black hole as well.
Knowledge is power, but understanding is the root of knowledge. And that's a commodity that's in short supply in the search game.
Gord Hotchkiss is President and CEO of Enquiro, Canada's leading search engine marketing firm and one of the top firms in North America. His articles are regularly published in both on and off line newsletters, including Marketing Monitor, SEOToday, Marketing and many other trade journals. Enquiro's own information portal is www.searchengineposition.com.
With an extensive 20 year background in the marketing and advertising business, Gord has been working to increase client's search engine visibility since 1996 and has specialized in search engine marketing since 1999.
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