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Understanding Searcher Behavior

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Searchers interact with search engines in a variety of ways, and understanding searcher behavior is an increasingly important aspect of effective search marketing, according to speakers exploring the topic at a recent Search Engine Strategies conference in New York.

Greg Sterling, former Senior Vice President and Program Director of Interactive Local Media at The Kelsey Group, said that search closing in on email as the primary daily online activity (77% email; 63% search).

"Understanding how and why consumers interact with search engines is critical in maximizing the value and effectiveness of SEO/SEM and of broader campaigns that include other media," he said.

Kelsey Research determined that:

  • 35% of online shoppers reported loyalty to one search engine
  • 53% said that they used two or three search engines
  • 10% percent indicated that they used four or more search engines regularly

Local search behavior has also evolved considerably. "43% of search engine users are seeking a local merchant to buy something offline," Sterling continued, "and 54% of search users have substituted Internet/search for the phone book, mostly for specific local lookups. Local is growing faster than general web search."

What does all of this data mean to search engine marketers? SEMs must face with some critical search engine marketing challenges, including:

  • Understanding consumer intent (researching vs. buying)
  • Integrating search into broader marketing mix that includes traditional media
  • Tracking performance of search when used as a "branding vehicle"
  • Tracking performance of search when leads convert offline
  • Buying smart to avoid competing over inflated keywords (which implies an holistic view of keyword performance)

Diane Rinaldo, Director of Retail Category at Yahoo Search Marketing, identified some industries strongly affected by searcher behavior:

  • Auto Industry. "The majority of auto purchasers stated that search was one of the first places they turned for information," she said. "Search also helped half narrow the vehicle they ultimately purchased."
  • VoIP Services. "Most consumers use search to learn," she said. "Consumers feel that search is significantly more effective for general VoIP learning and brand differentiation versus other sources."
  • Apparel. "Offline buyers report using search for multiple reasons, including finding a store, price comparison and finding specialty items. They also use search for keeping up to date on styles and deciding what to buy, behaviors that are higher in the funnel," she added. "For teen fashions, search is more effective for learning about brands than any other measured source, including magazines and friends."

Understanding click streams

According to Alan Rimm-Kaufman, President of Rimm-Kaufman Group LLC, a click stream a series of searches on paid search ads by the same person within a reasonable time frame. Click streams are applicable not only to paid search engine ads but also any series of search activity.

"Click streams involve starting at generic search phrases and narrowing down to specific, more relevant, ones," said Kaufman. "Both segments are important, as searches themselves typically begin with generic search phrases (which are higher up in the conversion funnel), and these generic phrases lay the groundwork for more specific searches."

According to Kaufman, click stream complexity involves the following:

Step 1: Characterizing search phrases (# of words, brand name, SKU, non-dictionary, etc.)

Step 2: Characterize click streams (assigning a character for each step of the click stream).

Step 3: Estimate transition probabilities within your dataset. (I.e., factor in all parts of your search marketing campaign to decide what effect they will have on your click stream data.

Step 4: Compute stationery probabilities. What combinations of search behavior activity will most likely lead to intended goals?

"Click stream analysis is hard because so many click streams are unique," he said. "The long tail concept—usually applied to the frequency of search phrases—is even more true of the distribution of click streams."

Kaufman determined that many click streams are rather short (1.4 clicks), but with a significant long tail. "Economics, optimization, and bidding by phrase, rather than by click stream, is an extremely good approximation," he said. " Browser auto-completion plays a large role in click-streams and navigation. Good copy and good landing pages, tailored to the ad, are critically important."

"Your brand matters a lot," he added. "Conversions are typically 200%-300% higher for brand phrases. "

Kaufman recommended breaking out results for phrases involving your brand. "Evaluate your in-house team or your SEM agency on their success driving non-brand sales," he said. "Brand for brand, not ROI. Choosing to spend large sums on branding through generic keyword buys is a valid strategy. Realize, however, that such ad buys are about branding, not conversion."

Grant Crowell is the CEO and Creative Director of Grantastic Designs, Inc., a full-service search engine marketing, web site design, and usability firm.

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