Are you a victim of the search gap? You could be, if you've focused all your efforts on getting people to your web site via search engines rather considering what happens after they arrive.
Study after study over the past years have consistently found that search engines are one of the most popular ways that people find web sites. Despite this, some new studies have also provided the apparently conflicting view that only a small percentage of a web site's traffic comes from search engines.
For example, a recently released study by Booz-Allen & Hamilton found that a healthy 33 percent of Internet user sessions involve searching at search engines and portals. Given this, one might assume that web sites on the receiving end of all this searching ought to get somewhere near 33 percent of their traffic from search engines. Instead, the study found that web sites get a scant 6 percent of their traffic from search engines and portals.
Similarly, a study released by StatMarket last December found that only about 7 percent of web sites get traffic from search engines. Many in the search engine optimization industry were dubious about this seemingly-low number, when it appeared. The people at StatMarket can now feel some vindication, given that the Booz-Allen study backs up their finding.
The high usage of search engines found by past surveys and the low traffic generated by search engines highlighted in the recent surveys are not in conflict. This "search gap," as I'm calling it, comes naturally out of the fact that once someone has found a web site that satisfies a particular desire, they will probably go directly to it in the future, rather than navigate to it via a search engine.
For example, let's say you want to buy a particular book. You do a search at your favorite search engine and find a page from Amazon about the book. You visit the Amazon site, like the price and information you are shown, so purchase the book from them. Thanks to search engines, Amazon has gained a customer.
A month later, you need another book. Remembering your positive experience at Amazon, you go directly to the web site rather than using a search engine to find it. Thus, your second visit isn't credited to search engines. However, it would have never occurred if you hadn't found Amazon via search engines the first time AND had a favorable impression of the site.
So, once people find trusted sites, they return to them directly for particular needs -- thus accounting for the relatively low traffic the StatMarket and Booz-Allen studies say is generated by search engines. However, because our needs are wide-ranging, we are constantly searching for new things -- which accounts for the overall high usage of search engines that other studies find.
It would be a mistake to interpret the search gap as meaning that search engines are not important. They remain a top way users will locate web sites initially and so cannot be ignored. Instead, the real lesson of the search gap is the age-old adage that first impressions count. Make a good impression when people first come to your site via search engines, and they may come back directly to you in the future.
The Great Portal Payoff
Booz-Allen & Hamilton, July/August 2000
A copy of the Booz-Allen study can be found at their web site -- look at the article in the left-hand frame. The download link is at the bottom. The study was released in February and focuses on an analysis of how over 1,000 people accessed the web. The key finding was that portals remain valuable web real estate, being visited in 60 percent of all Internet sessions. The authors then offer suggestions on how portals might better monetize their services, especially by building content and attracting brand name sponsors. Some important notes: the study classified 225 sites as "portals," which goes well beyond the top 10 to 20 players most people consider portals, such as Yahoo and Lycos. Some of these other portal sites were smaller or niche sites that nonetheless offered content and services similar to the major portals, the authors say. In all, the study included over 50,000 sites.
eMarketer, Feb. 27, 2001
Provides some charts out of figures from the Booz-Allen study, including the fact that of the various features that portals offer, search is the most popular, used during 49 percent of visits. In contrast, the second most popular "Telecom/Internet Services" function (which almost certainly includes email) is used in 17 percent of visits.
Search Engine Index
Links to other studies about search engines and how they are used, including the StatMarket study mentioned.
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