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Search Engine User Attitudes

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With so much interest in search, it's amazing how relatively little research has been done into how people interact with search engines, especially from a search marketing perspective. That's finally changing.

Over the past few weeks, search engine marketing firm iProspect has released a series of reports studying search behavior. That survey, Search Engine Users Attitudes, involved 1,649 people surveyed at the end of March 2004 on behalf of iProspect by Survey Sample International.

Search marketing firm Enquiro has also been busy. Similar to iPropsect, it has recently released results from a survey of hundreds of people about how they interact with search, as well as a focus group look that will be covered more in tomorrow's SearchDay.

Search Engine User Attitudes

Here are some of the key findings from the Search Engine User Attitudes Survey Results, published as a white paper and available on the iProspect web site.

Usage

56 percent of those surveyed use search engines on a daily basis. That includes 35 percent who do at least one search per day and 21 percent who search four or more times per day. Only one percent of those surveyed say they never use search engines. However, keep in mind that everyone in the survey was an internet user. If non-internet users were involved, that figure would obviously be higher.

Loyalty

A majority of searchers have a favorite search engine. iProspect found that:

  • 57 percent say they use the same search engine
  • 30.5 percent say they have several favorites that are used interchangeably
  • 13 percent say they use different search engines for different types of searches

Of those who said they use the same search engine, Google was the top choice, 66 percent. Yahoo followed at 55 percent, with MSN just behind at 54 percent. AOL was last at 49 percent. There were no other choices offered to survey participants.

Search Failure

What do people do when they can't find the information they're looking for? 26 percent said they'd give up on a search and try again if they didn't find a match in the first two pages of results, more than any other choice. This was followed by 23 percent who said they'd review only the first few matches on the first page, then 19 percent who said they'd review only the entire first page of results. 15 percent said they'd give up after reviewing three pages. The remainder said they'd look at more than three pages.

Combining the figures provides a different perspective of success for search marketers. SEO lore says that a page needs to be in the top ten results to have a chance of being clicked on by searchers. The reality, at least according to the iProspect numbers, is a different story. How so?

Being on the first page of results, especially high up, exposes your page to 42 precent of all search engine users. But being on the second page adds those persistent users, increasing the potential viewership to 68 percent of users. Even if your result is on page three, fully 83 percent will see the link to your page.

These numbers seem surprisingly high. Do they indicate that searchers have become more discriminating, and are less likely to click without first evaluating more than the top handful of results? Perhaps -- but something else may be at work. Perhaps the perceived quality of search results is getting worse, so people are drilling deeper to find what they need.

91 percent said they'd try searching differently at a search engine if the initial search failed to bring up a good match in the first three pages of results. A similar iProspect survey in 2002 found this figure to be 71 percent, causing the company to suggest that search quality is improving. Bill Muller, Vice President, Marketing of iProspect says "Our conclusion was based on the fact that now, only 9% of users will either give up searching altogether or try another search engine, after an "unsuccessful" search -- as opposed to 29% who previously gave up altogether or tried another search engine in the results of our previous survey."

One idea is that search users believe it's more their mistake than the search engine's. In other words, instead of trying the same search elsewhere -- which might actually bring up a better result -- they may feel they've simply not come up with the right query.

The survey also looked at abandonment by profession. Homemakers were the finickiest, with more than 52 percent looking only at the first page of search results before moving to another search engine or modifying their search. Abandonment rates were also high among educators (40%), IT/MIS professionals (38%) and students (27%).

More oddly, those on unemployment stopped looking at results after the first page more than full-time or part-time employees.

The adage that age mellows people and makes them more patient doesn't apply in the search world, according to survey results. Across the board, the older a user is the less likely he or she will look at more than the first page of results. Nearly half of all people 60 and older abandoned their search after the first page of results if they didn't find what they were looking for. This was followed by 44 percent of 45-59 year olds, 38 percent of 30-44 year olds, and just 32 percent of 18-29 year olds.

And women are less likely to go more deeply into search results than men. 44 percent of women said they don't go past the first page of search results, whereas 37 percent of men responded this way. Why?

Women "tend to go directly to brands that they know and trust for advice to save time," said Lauren Wiener, managing director at Meredith Interactive, publisher of American Baby and Ladies' Home Journal's LHJ.com in an article in MediaPost.

For search marketers, these survey findings are a mixed blessing. If your target audience falls clearly into one of the demographic groups surveyed, it's much more important to have your pages listed in the top ten results. This is especially true if your target user falls into more than one group -- an unemployed 60 year old female educator, as an extreme example.

Equally important, the results suggest that a combined strategy that uses both organic SEO to gain top ten listings and a paid placement campaign might be the most effective approach for difficult to please audiences. The survey has more about the effectiveness of paid vs. organic links, which we'll go into below.

Toolbars

Toolbars seem ubiquitous these days -- most of the major search services and scores of other players offer them.

Nearly half of those surveyed -- 49 percent -- said they use one or more search toolbars. This is based on the fact that respondents were asked to answer which toolbar they had installed: Google, Yahoo, MSN or None Of The Above. Yahoo was ranked top among those choices, at 22 percent, followed by Google at 20 percent and MSN at 17 percent.

Unfortunately, having to choose only one toolbar meant those who may have had two or more might not have had the other ones they used counted accurately.

In an article about the survey in MediaPost, Jupiter Research Senior Analyst Gary Stein commented, "For the intended strategy of these toolbars, which is to generate loyalty, I don't know if they're great for that. We see a lot of downloading of toolbars, but not a lot of use."

Relevancy: Paid Versus Free

Although many purists are dismissive of paid listings, some searchers prefer them, especially for certain types of queries. Others leaned toward organic listings -- sometimes with surprising results.

For example, for the query "used car," when shown a result page from the user's favorite search engine, organic results were deemed more relevant by 60.5 percent, versus 39.5 percent favoring paid listings, across all search engines.

Looking more closely at the preferences of users of particular engines, however, and a dramatic divergence in opinion appears.

Google users especially said they liked organic listings better, with 72 percent favoring them, with 28% preferring sponsored listings. MSN users, by contrast, had virtually the opposite results, saying that paid listings were more relevant (71 percent) vs. organic results (29%).

Why? Pure speculation, but perhaps the look and feel of Google's sponsored listings looking more like "normal" results helped. In other words maybe ads at Google were also very relevant -- but because they don't look like regular results, have shorter descriptions and so on, they are dismissed more frequently.

In other findings, both men (65%) and women (57%) preferred natural results over paid listings, though the 43% of women who said they favored the paid listings suggest that the preference for organic results is not as strong in women as men.

Other demographic breakdowns showed a similar preference for organic over paid search listings, but with important differences within each group:

  • Education level: College graduates preferred natural results (65%) to paid listings (35%), while non-college graduates had less pronounced preference for organic listings (56%) to paid listings (44%).
  • Employment status: Full time workers - organic listings (65%) vs. paid listings(36%); Part time workers organic listings (61%) vs. paid listings (39%); Unemployed organic listings (55%) vs. paid listings (45%
  • Internet usage: Frequent internet users (4 or more times per day) preferred organic listings (65%) to paid listings (35%), while infrequent users (less than four times per day) preferred natural search listings (56%) to paid listings (44%)

An important takeaway for search marketers from this survey is that it's increasingly important to think of your target audience not as "searchers" or "prospects" but rather as multi-dimensional users with complex needs and desires. An effective search marketing strategy now must go beyond simply optimizing for a particular engine, or bidding for a narrow range of keywords specific to your product or service.

Rather, it's important to build up a profile (or multiple profiles) of the type of people you're interested in attracting to your web site through search marketing. Build optimizing strategies and campaigns around those profiles, and the iProspect survey results suggest you'll be far more effective than using the one size fits all approach that many search marketers still employ today.

Tomorrow's SearchDay features results from more research into user behavior and search engines, from a very different perspective. Stay tuned.

iProspect Search Engine User Attitudes Survey Press Releases

Links to the various press releases iProspect has put out describing the results of the search engine user attitudes survey.


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