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Inside the Searcher's Mind: It's a Jungle in Here!

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Editor's Note: As covered in yesterday's SearchDay, there have been two surveys released recently providing a welcome look at how people search in aggregate. Search engine marketing company Enquiro also recently conducted a focus group, to get up close and personal with a small set of searchers and jump more inside their minds. In this article, Enquiro president Gord Hotchkiss reports on those findings.

At Enquiro, we undertook a research project recently to allow us to glimpse inside the mind of the searcher. Through an enhanced focus group format, we observed the search behaviors of 24 Canadians.

This focus group format was chosen so we would have the chance to observe actual search engine interactions and interview the participants about their motivations and feelings during the search process. We may conduct further research in the future to further validate the findings of the small focus group.

Participants were given two search scenarios, both involving research of an upcoming purchase. We established two price levels, under $200 and under $5000, for each of the scenarios. The participants were then allowed to search normally using their preferred search engine.

All activity was monitored by a screen recorder utility. After completion of their search interaction, an Enquiro staff member reviewed the activity with them and interviewed them during the process, asking them about their impressions of actual search results, reasons for choosing links and what they saw and didn't see on each of the pages they visited. After completion of the interviews, results were compiled and analyzed.

Interactions With Search Results Page

It became clear that the participants had mentally divided a search engine results page into distinct sections. Most of our searchers had clearly delineated sponsored results from organic ones, and "above the fold" results (those that don't require scrolling down in the browser window) from "below the fold" results (results that require scrolling).

Although they were aware of each of these sections, that didn't mean they looked at all of them. We found a strong tendency to skip past the sponsored listings and go directly to the organic results. Less that 20 percent of the participants were confused about what was a sponsored link and what was an organic link.

Google users were the least confused about what was sponsored and what wasn't on the results page. The greatest confusion was found amongst MSN users.

Here's a further look at specific observations about each search engine's results page:

  • Google: The Google page was divided by users into five distinct sections: top sponsored listings, side sponsored listings, additional feed (Directory, Froogle and News Feeds), above the fold organic listings and below the fold organic listings.

    We did find that the top sponsored positions were more likely to be seen in both Google and Yahoo. We estimate, based on responses, that these positions might give up to a 40 percent advantage in clickthroughs over sponsored links on the right side of the screen.
  • Yahoo: Users divided the Yahoo results page into four distinct sections: top sponsored listings, side sponsored listings, "above the fold" organic listings and "below the fold" organic listings.

    In this case, Yahoo's top of page paid listing, although clearly identified as sponsored, does not have a colored background and so has a greater likelihood of being scanned along with the top organic listings.
  • MSN: MSN users had a little more difficulty dividing the page into sections, because of the nature of the results. The easiest to identify were the side sponsored ads. On the left side, featured sites show first, then sponsored sites, and then finally the organic directory and index results. Because of the number of featured and sponsored listings, all organic listings generally appear below the fold.

    There was a significant amount of confusion about what was sponsored and what wasn't on the left side results on MSN. While this may lead to greater clickthroughs on sponsored ads and a lessened tendency to scroll down to organic results, comments by users indicate this could lead to frustration with users.

We found significant dropoffs as we moved from section to section. Generally, we found the majority of users (19 out of 24, representing almost 80 percent of the group) tend to skip over sponsored results and go first to the top organic results. If the users find something relevant in these results, they may never return to the sponsored listings.

Here's a closer look at what we found for key areas of search result pages:

  • Above The Fold Organic: This was considered the "prime real estate." All 24 participants checked these top two or three organic results. One participant indicated that he usually went first to the sponsored results for commercial searches, but still looked at the top organic listings. If a highly relevant and trusted site appeared in these top listings, it would likely capture a click through from almost 100 percent of the users.
  • Below The Fold Organic: The number of searchers who would then scroll down to look at the rest of results varied greatly with the quality of the results above the fold. If there was not a clearly relevant and useful site in the top three, 21 of the participants would scroll down to look at the bottom organic results. However, if there was a highly relevant, quality site in the top three listings, only 14 participants would scroll down to check all results before choosing a link to click on.
  • Sponsored Links: Like below the fold organic results, the number of participants looking at the sponsored links depended on the relevancy of the sites showing in the organic listings. If nothing relevant showed, 12 members of the group would then look at the sponsored links. But only 4 members would look even if they found a relevant site in the organic listings.
  • Second Page And Beyond: If no relevant listings were found on the first page, only 5 participants went to the second page rather than launching a new search. If relevant sites were found on the first page, only one participant took the time to also check listings on the second (and third) page of results.

In looking at how users dropped off as they went from section to section, it was clear that it's important for the marketer to gain as much real estate on the search engine results page as possible. Through the process, we have to understand that a potential customer could be intercepted at any point by a competitor, and may never return to the page to see our listing. This information can be used by marketers to make sure they establish positions on the page that will have the greatest likelihood of intercepting potential customers.

Four Types Of Searchers

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: These were all younger males. They tend to do a quick scan of the top three or four 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.

    This is the group most likely to click on the top listing, without reading a title or description. The speed of their mouse hand continues through the site visit, with decisions made about whether to stay on a site or return to the search page made in less than 15 seconds. This group never goes to a second page of search results.

    If your target customer fits this profile, there is some good news. We found there no reservations about buying online within this profile and they are less resistant to sponsored listings than other search profiles. In the focus group, this profile included three males, aged 23 to 28. All were frequent internet users.

  • Two Step Scanners: 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." 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.

    The Two Step Scanners made up 25 percent of the focus group. As mentioned, they were all men, aged 20 to 62. They tended to have higher average incomes and more education than the other profiles. This group is a little more resistant to purchasing online and tends to take more time before clicking on a link (average of 13.6 seconds). They are generally quite experienced with the internet and search engines.

  • Deliberate Researchers: This was the largest component of the focus group, with 41.6 percent of the participants matching this profile. It was 60 percent female, 40 percent 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.

    This is the group that has the longest interaction with the results page before choosing a link (an average of 39.7 seconds before making a choice). Ages ranged from 22 to 53 years, with an average age of 35.6. The average income was $36,750. The group had varying degrees of experience with the internet, ranging from very little to extensive. This is also the group that is one of the most resistant to buying online. The purchase cycle tends to be a lot longer with this group than with others.
  • 1-2-3 Searchers: 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.

    This group was the least experienced with search engines and the internet. The ages ranged from 22 to 41, with an average age of 29.5 years. Average income was $30,000. Together with Deliberate Researchers, this is the group least likely to purchase online. They are not comfortable with security and privacy issues and are much more likely to use the internet as a way to research a purchase that will happen offline. The average time before clicking on a listing was 19.9 seconds.

We also 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.

The Search Process

In looking at actual search patterns, we noticed that a typical search interaction can be a long and convoluted process that can lead suddenly in unexpected directions.

A typical online research interaction can involve 5 to 6 different queries and interactions with 15 to 20 different sites. Often, the actual contents of a search results page can cause the searcher to take the search in a totally different direction, launching a new query that is at best somewhat divergent from the original purpose of the search.

Dead ends are common and the browser back button is used extensively to navigate through the search process. For this reason, the search engine results page is actually used as a navigation aid in negotiating the online research interaction, as people continually refer back to it and launch another online exploration from this starting point.

From Broad To Narrow

Over 70 percent of participants indicated they like to start with a generic, inclusive keyphrase and narrow it down from there. Reasons for this included:

  • Not wanting to exclude potential quality sites by being too exclusive in the original search
  • By being broader, the searcher may find other options to help take the search in new directions by looking at the results
  • Being able to judge relevancy of the original findings and selectively increase relevancy by adding qualifying keyphrases
  • It's easier and quicker to type in a broad, short phrase at the beginning

In a typical search pattern the search becomes increasingly specific as the search goes through the search process. As this happens, the chances of the searcher finding results that could lead to a conversion becomes greater and greater as the search progresses.

The exact direction the search takes can be determined by the results found in the early, generic searches. For example, a searcher looking for a cruise may start by searching for "cruises." If they see listings for a particular cruise line or destination, their search may turn toward these specific directions.

Researchers Versus Buyers

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 percent of participants indicated they would use a search engine to help research a purchase, but only 41 percent indicated that they would purchase an item online, and only 28 percent 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.

For those doing research, the following items were mentioned and listed in order of importance to the user, in getting them to clickthrough:

  • The exact query in the title and description
  • Product information: features, comparisons, reviews, prices
  • Trusted sources of information, i.e. Consumer Reports
  • Trusted brand names and vendors
  • Trusted URLs

For a purchaser, some of the items are the same, but different factors are also introduced. Again, these are listed in order of importance:

  • The exact query in the title and description
  • Offer product information: features, comparisons, reviews, prices
  • Trusted brand names and vendors
  • Promises of added value: discounts, free shipping, etc
  • Ability to buy online
  • Trusted URLs

Conversion Factors

As with the search itself, there were distinct variances in the factors researchers were looking for, as compared to purchasers, for when they arrived at a site. Researches listed these factors in order of importance:

  • Query Keywords - In a heading or other prominent location
  • Product Picture
  • Selection - Ability to see different products in one place. Should have trusted brands featured
  • Features - Find out more about the product
  • Prices Don't make them ask for it!
  • Comparison - Direct comparison between models
  • Clean Professional Layout - Is this a trusted site?
  • Reviews - Consumer reviews, client testimonials
  • Offers Value added offers, i.e. free shipping
  • Clear Navigation Is it easy to move around and continue researching
  • Clear Conversion Path Is it easy to buy or ask for more information

Purchasers listed these factors:

  • Query Keywords - In a heading or other prominent location
  • Product Picture
  • Offers Value added offers, i.e. free shipping
  • Prices Don't make them ask for it
  • Features - Find out more about the product
  • Clean Professional Layout - Is this a trusted site
  • Clear Conversion Path Is it easy to buy or ask for more information
  • Selection - Ability to see different products in one place. Should have trusted brands featured
  • Comparison - Direct comparison between models
  • Clear Navigation Is it easy to move around and continue researching
  • Reviews - Consumer reviews, client testimonials

The Anonymity Threshold

In watching the participants interactions with a site, we also found that another common trait appears, particularly with the Deliberate Researchers and 1-2-3 Searchers. We have called it the Anonymity Threshold.

In general, people feel they are relatively anonymous when they are browsing online. And when people are gathering information about a purchasing decision, most prefer to remain anonymous. They don't want to be exposed to sales pitches at this point, because they're not ready to engage in the purchase process. They haven't narrowed down their list of options yet.

In looking at the cruise example used earlier, it wasn't until the searcher had found the right destination, type of cruise and cruise line that they were ready to engage in the purchase process. For this reason, they were resistant to purchase process-oriented incentives (i.e. discounts) until the very last.

Through search engines, you can gather a lot of information quickly and you don't have to enter into a situation where you surrender your anonymity until you choose to. We believe this is the reason there is a significant drop off between people willing to use search engines to research a purchase decision and people willing to use it to purchase online.

This drop off has been identified by a number of ecommerce studies of the internet as a whole. The purchase requires people to cross the anonymity threshold and they're not prepared to do that. They know once they surrender contact information, they will likely be contacted by the vendor and be engaged in a purchase transaction. The consumer wants to do this according to their timing, not the vendors.

People won't cross the threshold until they have no option. If given the choice between getting information and remaining anonymous and getting the information through registering, people will always choose the former. This creates a bit of a dilemma for the marketer, because generally the key metric is measuring against acquired or converted visitors. Almost every definition of an acquisition or conversion requires the visitor to cross the anonymity threshold. Because of the reluctance of the visitor to cross this threshold, the site owner may be building significant brand equity or trust with the visitor but is not giving credit to it because of the anonymity threshold.

In order to entice people to purchase online, the web vendor has to offer at least one significant advantage, whether it's price, selection or convenience. If all things are equal or even close to equal, people will tend to avoid entering into a purchase process online.

In looking at most search marketing strategies; the emphasis is put on encouraging the purchase, while most people using search engines are more interested in anonymously gathering information. We believe this to be a fundamental disconnect.

A white paper describing Enquiro's research in full, "Inside the Mind of the Searcher," can be found here.

Gord Hotchkiss is President and CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm. He regularly speaks and writes about how consumers use search engines and on the best strategies for marketing to them.


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