by Steve Malone

Walking around the annual Search Engine Strategies conference in London earlier this month, the buzz phrase of the moment seems to be ‘User Intent’ – the quite simple idea of actually finding out what a searcher wants when they type in a search phrase and giving it to them.

This does not just mean identifying the keywords and delivering back a set of results which happen to contain the keywords. Oh, No. That’s far too easy. Any old search engine can do that.

No this is ‘what do they really, really mean.` For example, when you type a product name into Google, the chances are that online dealers are likely to rate quite highly – if not at the top. This is not, as some might suspect, Google receiving payment to push a particular retailer to the top of the listings, or even a smart bit of SEO by the company. Google figures that if someone is typing a product name into a search engine, they probably want to buy one and delivers accordingly.

The buying cycle is well known to the online business. Often, a potential customer will research a market, looking at feature sets, ease of use, market leaders etc before narrowing the search down to perhaps a few products and finally a price.

Some recent research by comScore underlines the process. It found that around half of all buyers will make a relevant search before making an online purchase. During this period, it is possible to get their attention during each search. For example, clothing buyers will make on average of 4.7 searches over a 12 week period whilst travel buyers search around six times. Most of these searches are simply generic – around 75 per cent according to comScore – and most searchers never type in merchant brands.

Of course, hitting the potential buyer with the right message at the right time is key. A potentially interesting new weapon in the search marketer’s armoury is Yahoo!’s Mindset tool. Here the user can set on a sliding scale whether they are more in the research or shopping frame of mind.

Although the tool is still a beta and whilst Yahoo! is supplying ads alongside the search results, they are not yet being adjusted according to where the searcher sets the bar. According to Yahoo! senior managers I spoke to, that is only a matter of time. And, naturally they expect that if someone is in the red-hot shopping zone, they expect the price of the ads to rise accordingly.

Or so you might think. But, it doesn’t work that way at the moment. Looking at bid prices on Overture, `Notebook` is $3, `Sony Notebooks` is $1, `Sony Vaio` is 61c and `cheapest Sony Vaio` is just 17c.

What’s going on here? Prices are more expensive at the beginning of the buying process, not at the end when customers are ready with the plastic. Of course, there will be some value in catching the eye of the researcher early on. But equally clearly there is some laziness on the part of search engine marketers who will just bid on the generic term. And it takes time to bid ‘cheapest’ across your entire product stock, if you offer the keenest prices.

But, I suspect the real problem is back to ‘user intent’. comScore discovered that over half of buyers make their last search two or more weeks before the actual purchase. Those who bid on `cheapest Sony Vaio` may expect an instant hit. They may not get the sale instantly, but they might get the sale several weeks later.

Finding what your customers really want is the key to any business. Whilst we have all gotten used to the instant response from a high performing AdWord, the real payback may not come for several weeks. The advice is to ensure that any tracking cookies are set to an appropriate period of 30 captures the full value of the search and find out the real intent of those visitors who came and left several weeks ago.

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Analyzing User Intent for SEM Campaigns

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.