We are all creatures of habit. We travel in well worn grooves, interacting with the familiar and generally eschewing the unfamiliar. Of course, not all people are alike, but generally speaking, we as a species don’t like breaking new ground. Occasionally we will nudge ourselves out of our rut to try something new but there better be a pretty big win in it for us.

In the early days of the Internet, everything was new. Every visit online was forging new horizons. We made new discoveries daily. We had no choice. If we chose to go online, we were forced to venture into the unfamiliar. While this is still true to a certain extent, those days are rapidly disappearing.

We are rapidly civilizing and settling the online world. We’re staking out the familiar territory. We’re finding and book marking our favorite destination. And suddenly, there is a value being assessed to well-traveled online properties. There is a brand loyalty building. It goes beyond a simple reckoning of the number of eyeballs hitting a page. As is common in the offline world, there are distinct and loyal communities developing that are centered around key online properties.

Search as our Navigator

This is nothing revelatory or earthshaking, but it does have some direct implications for search marketing. There is a sweet spot for search, and it has to do with the size, scope and nature of our identified and familiar online world. Whenever we have to venture into the terra incognito that lies beyond those boundaries, we turn to a search engine. And, because we are creatures of habit, we turn to our favorite search engine. We trust that engine to quickly identify new sites that we feel comfortable exploring. Search acts as a navigator and guide. And generally, we only go to search when a familiar destination doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

So, in a consumer interaction, there are distinct phases where we are likely to turn to a general search engine like Google or Yahoo. If we are booking a trip most of us will go directly to an Expedia or Travelocity. That’s familiar ground to us and we know that it will deliver what we’re looking for: a quick way to compare a number of different airfares, hotels or other options. We don’t go to Google each time and search for the lowest airfare to our destination or a hotel. We don’t need a navigator, because we already know the way. There are sites we know of that are better able to find the information we’re looking for, because they were built for that specific type of search.

Stepping into the Unknown

But let’s say we want to do consumer research in an area where we don’t have a well known reference and comparison site such as Expedia. For example, let’s say we’re looking for a new mountain bike. We may be familiar with a brand or two, but we’re looking to broaden our options for consideration. So we turn to a general search engine to help quickly identify new landmarks to help navigate this unfamiliar territory. As soon as we can, we try to find vertical reference sites in the market we’re researching, because we know they’re built to provide richer content and more searching functionality for that particular product than a general, one size fits all search engine. We use the navigator to find the reference landmark.

Why so many Consumers use Generic Keyphrases

Often there is back and forth between the two. In the case of the mountain bike, perhaps the vertical reference site allows us to find new models, which we then turn to our favorite search engine to find more information on. This may or may not happen and it''s one reason why the ComScore study released in December found that many consumer searches on general search engines never progressed beyond generic keyphrases. Those are the phrases we’ll used to quickly survey the landscape and may well move on to vertically specific sites, perhaps never to return to the search engine.

Another example we saw of this behavior became apparent in a focus group we conducted early in 2004. In it, we gave 24 participants a budget to spend and asked them to start researching their purchases online. About half the group wanted to purchase a consumer electronic item and either the first or second place they went was the site of a very well known CE retailer. They did the majority of their research there and only occasionally turned to a search engine to broaden the options or look for new online destinations.

Exploring our Target Consumer’s Online Market Landscape

As search marketers, we need to spend more time understanding the territory that our target consumers travel through. If we’re trying to intercept them, we need to know their online destinations, both familiar and unfamiliar. We must know when they’re likely to turn to a search engine and when they might go directly to a site they’re already familiar with. The fastest way to find the intercept points is to examine the traffic patterns and then decide where you can stake a presence in a prime intersection. But all too often, we try to stake our claim to online territory, never knowing if our customer might even come that way.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
May 3, 2005

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.

Search Engine Guide > Gord Hotchkiss > Online not the place for the Road less Travelled