Avoiding The Search Gap

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.

What are ways of making a good impression? For one, the page people land upon from the search engine into your site ought to clearly guide them to particular goals or to more information available elsewhere within your web site.

Remember, every page in your web site is a possible entry point from crawler-based search engines. That means you need to consider design changes that make it easy for users to quickly reach your home page, a site map or to search your site, in case they don't immediately see what they want.

Also, take a close look at your home page, which often is one of the most popular entry points from human-powered search engines. Are you delivering a huge Flash file? The users may click away, return to the search engine and find some other sites they'll remember for the future.

Similarly, if someone lands on a home page that is poorly written, doesn't communicate what the site is about and seems to have no relationship to their needs, then they aren't likely to stick with you.

Another important thing to consider is branding. Does your site have a memorable name, so that users can locate it if they want to next time? Do you offer a bookmark feature. At the very least, offer an email newsletter so you can reach out to them, after they go.

The tips above may not sound like search engine marketing, but they are. Helping people find your web site from search engines is only half the challenge. Once they arrive, you want to ensure they also convert into customers and will revisit in the future. Otherwise, the search engine work you did initially has been wasted, and you may also be losing opportunities to convert visitors who find you via other means.

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.

Portal Power
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.


How do you improve the first impression of your web site? ClickZ's columnists offer advice in usability, writing copy that sells, web page design and more. There's lots of valuable information worth reading.

Pump Up the Volume With Copy That Sells
ClickZ, April 30, 2001

Learn how to write copy that's compelling to your visitors.

Usability Makes a Comeback
ClickZ, April 16, 2001

Here's a checklist and good tips to discover whether your site has been optimized for usability, in addition to generating search engine traffic.

Nick Usbourne: ClickZ Columns

One of my favorite ClickZ columnists, you'll find plenty of sound advice about making your site more usable and marketable from Nick.

Usable Web

You'll find hundreds of resources here for making your site more usable.

Search Engine Software For Your Web Site

If you don't have a site search engine, there are some easy to install "No Software Needed" options listed here. Also visit the SearchTools.com web site, listed in the Top Resources section.


Mailing lists can be a great way to get return visitors. Topica makes it easy to get started with mailing lists for free.

Yahoo Groups

Just like Topica, Yahoo Groups makes starting a mailing list easy.

Bookmark Us! Script

Get your site bookmarked via this script, and then visitors will find it easier to return.