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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.

A longer version of this article that goes into more details about the focus group study, including more detailed profiles of searchers and actionable strategies for search marketers is available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member
.

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.

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.

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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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.

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.

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.

A longer version of this article that goes into more details about the focus group study, including more detailed profiles of searchers and actionable strategies for search marketers is available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member
.

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