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Delving Deep Inside the Searcher's Mind

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Which search engines do searchers prefer and why? How do users use search engines to find the information they want? And how do searchers perceive paid versus free listings? New research offers insights into the workings of the searcher's mind.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 2-5, 2004, San Jose, CA.

During the session "Inside the Searcher's Mind" at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, industry experts from Enquiro, Vividence, iProspect and Google asked searchers, "What are you thinking?" Their research unearthed some surprising results that will help site owners better understand their customers.

"We have to look at search from a strategic level," said Gordon Hotchkiss from Enquiro. "Search is a marketing channel that connects your company to your target audience."

Following the search funnel

Hotchkiss argued that comprehending how a customer thinks is crucial -- and understanding searcher behavior and motivations will dramatically increase a search marketing campaign's success.

"We need to understand the customer and how they react," says Hotchkiss.

Most marketers mistakenly envision a linear search process where prospects conduct a search, get their results, view a site, and immediately convert. Summarizing results from his study, "Into the Mind of the Searcher," Hotchkiss reported that the actual user experience is dramatically different.

"Actual search interaction is complex and varied," says Hotchkiss.

Hotchkiss described this searching pattern as the "search funnel." Searching starts with a generic, inclusive keyword, and as the user goes through the search process, the search becomes increasingly specific.

"Over 70 percent of participants start with a generic keyphrase and narrow it down from there," he said.

Hotchkiss illustrated his point with an actual search scenario from his study. The searcher began her search using the word "cruise" -- an all-inclusive keyword that resulted in broad results. After reviewing the initial results, the user refined her search for the phrase "Caribbean cruise."

This initial researching phase is what Hotchkiss calls the "awareness" phase. Characterized by searchers researching their options and narrowing their scope of interest, chances of converting during this phase is highly unlikely (around one to two percent).

The "awareness" phase poses a certain challenge for marketers. Hotchkiss' research demonstrates that introducing a company's brand early in the search process often dictates the direction of a search, having an effect on the eventual outcome. However, those "awareness" key terms may not realize stellar ROI, as actual conversion rates are low. Some marketers may be tempted to slice those terms from their key phrase list, figuring that they aren't effective.

"If you are researching, you are searching differently than if you are ready to buy," says Hotchkiss. "You can't look at all keywords for return on investment."

Following the "awareness" phase is the "convert" phase, characterized by users researching options and reviewing third-party testimonials. Users are also reintroduced to brands during the "convert" phase.

During this phase, the user narrowed her search, reading third party reviews on Panama Cruises. While reading the reviews, she was reintroduced to the Princess Cruise Lines brand and their Panama cruises. After determining that she was interested in a Princess cruise, she conducted her final search for "Princess Panama Cruise." This final targeted search has a 30-40 percent chance of conversion for Princess, according to Hotchkiss. Additionally, if "Panama cruises" and the Princess brand weren't introduced early in the "awareness" stage, the searcher may never have refined her search in that direction.

Determining how users view search engine results pages

Fredrick Markini, CEO of iProspect, summarized data from the "iProspect Search Engine User Attitudes Report," surveying 1,649 participants on their search engine behavior. Specific results are:

  • 60.5 percent of respondents picked a natural search result as the one they found most relevant to a sample query.
  • 60.8 percent of respondents who use Yahoo picked a natural search result as "most relevant" to a sample query.
  • 72.3 percent of respondents who use Google picked a natural search result as "most relevant."
  • 15.2 percent more women than men stop at the first page of search results.

The study by iProspect also illustrated when searchers "move on" from search results and type in another query.

  • 22.6 percent of searchers will try another search after viewing the top listings.
  • 18.6 percent will try another search after viewing the entire first page.
  • 25.8 percent will abandon the query after checking the first two pages.
  • 14.7 percent will relaunch a query after the first three pages.

If a brand is not represented in the top three search results, that brand loses 80 percent of the online audience for that search query.

"Rarely do searchers go past the third page," says Markini.

So, what do all these numbers mean to site owners? One fact is that online branding is more than just relying on either PPC advertising or organic SEO. Even if 60.5 percent of respondents considered a natural search result more relevant, Markini stresses that PPC is still important.

"Unequivocally, you have to do paid search as well," says Markini. "Otherwise, you miss 30-40 percent of your audience."

The study also provided search marketers tips for targeting specific demographic groups. For instance, according to the study, 43.1 percent of women chose a paid result as "most relevant" to a sample query. If a marketer is targeting women, running paid search listings may result in search conversions.

Getting inside the searcher's mind

Liz Edison from Vividence switched the focus from how users use search engines, to how users perceive the engines.

"Our goal was to get inside the mindset of a user," said Edison.

Edison summarized results from Vividence's Search Engine Ranking Report. Researchers surveyed 2000 panelists on how their online experience affects perceptions of advertising, search results and brand image.

Their study asked users questions including:

  • Is there a search leader?
  • What search engines do users choose first?
  • Are perceptions based on performances?
  • What are the key differentiators between search engines?
  • What are the drivers that build loyalty?

Google was perceived as the leader in terms of both customer experience and satisfaction. However, although actual search results returned by Yahoo, Google, Ask Jeeves, Lycos and MSN were not dramatically different, Google users had a higher perceived rate of success and satisfaction.

"Search engines are at performance parity when success is measured objectively," said Edison. "Despite performance, people prefer Google."

The consumer preference, according to the report, could be due to how Google segregates sponsored from free listings. Google paid listings are clearly marked on the right side of the search results page. However, Ask Jeeves and Lycos sponsored Web results appear before the free results.

"Users felt that they were 'trying to be fooled' to click on a sponsored link," said Mayer.

These results may tempt site owners to go gaga for Google and ignore other engines in their search marketing campaign. But beware this Google-centric technique. Although 76 percent of users had a primary search engine, the report stated that users are not monogamous to just one engine. When search expectations are not met, 47 percent of users turn to another search engine, and up to 16 percent regularly use a different search engine for some searches. Therefore, even engines with a lower market share (such as Ask Jeeves) still give sites good exposure.

What Google searchers are seeking

Slipping inside the mind of search users is of great interest to the engines. Marissa Mayer, Director or Consumer Web Products for Google, described user testing the home page back in Google's early days. They found that rather than immediately starting a search, users were stymied by the simple interface.

"We would wait for them to take action. And wait. We learned that users thought the home page was 'too blank,' and didn't know what to click," says Mayer.

Mayer echoed Hotchkiss' research about how users begin with a general query, eventually zeroing in on their search results.

"Searchers become expert searchers very quickly," says Mayer. "Users start with a general search and get more specific."

Once users enter their search query, they immediately focus on the blue links in the middle of the search engine results page (SERP). Everything else on the SERP is initially ignored -- including sponsored links, tabs at the top of the page and news stories - until the searcher has confirmed that the search results are relevant

"User attention goes to search results to corroborate that they are quality," says Mayer.

Searchers zeroing in on organic search results posed some challenges for the Google team. For instance, when a searcher misspelled a query they typically did not see the "did you mean...?" spelling correction link at the top of the SERP. However, 20 percent of people scrolled to the bottom of the page, clicked the "Dissatisfied? Help us improve" link, and complained about their search results.

Now, responding to user testing, the "Did you mean..." link also appears at the bottom of the page where Google knows users will find it.

Mayer did admit that there is one link on the Google home page not receiving high click through. The "I'm feeling lucky" link. Although it's rarely clicked, users demand that Google keeps it on the home page.

"When Google has polled users and asked if they should remove it, the response has always been no," says Mayer.

Heather Lloyd-Martin is the President and CEO of SuccessWorks Search Marketing Solutions and author of the ebook Successful Search Engine Copywriting.


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