Searcher Behavior Research Update

Two new studies examining how people search show that internet users are becoming more discriminating, with important implications for search marketers.

As part of ongoing work conducted by Jupiter Research and sponsored by iProspect, "The iProspect Search Engine User Behavior Study" found that 62% of search engine users click on a search result within the first page of results, and a full 90% of users click on a result within the first three pages of search results.

These figures were just 48% and 81% in 2002, based on similar research iProspect did at the time.

Search marketers should take note of these findings, as they emphasize the importance of appearing on the first few pages of search results, whether in natural or sponsored listings. The message is clear: You can't simply rely on search engine optimization or search advertising if you want qualified prospects to find you. You must invest the time and resources in both types of search marketing, or risk being overlooked.

These findings, while interesting and important in themselves, raise several questions:

  • Are searchers getting more sophisticated and demanding—or conversely, getting lazier and more easily satisfied?
  • Have search engines improved so significantly over the past four years that most people find what they want on the first page of results?
  • Apart from "quality" search results, how have user attitudes toward marketing and branding messages changed?

Partially answering the first question, results of the iProspect study suggest that at least a certain percentage of searchers are getting more sophisticated and demanding.

For example, 41% of search engine users who continue their search when they don't find satisfactory results on the first page do one of two things: Change engines or change search terms. Four years ago, just 28% did.

Even more determined are users who don't find what they're looking for at all on their first try. Fully 88% of these users change engines or change their search terms, up from 78% in 2002.

But these figures mask a somewhat paradoxical finding related to loyalty: 82% of search engine users re-launch an unsuccessful search using the same search engine used initially, adding more keywords to their query. Just 68% stayed with the same engine in 2002.

This suggests searchers are not only loyal, they're increasingly going out on the "long tail" using lengthier queries. For search marketers, this means if you're not targeting both simple keywords as well as lengthier keyword-rich phrases you're likely missing out on a significant amount of traffic that simply wasn't there a few years ago.

iProspect also concludes that with more searchers persisting with the same engine despite failed initial searches, that user loyalty has been earned. In other words, in staying with the same engine and using a different or longer query, searchers are implicitly saying that the problem is with their own search strategy, not with the search engine.

What about the branding aspect? The study found that 36% believe that companies whose websites are returned at the top of the search results are the top companies in their field. Slightly more (39%) felt neutral on this question. At the other end of the spectrum, just 25% said that top search engine rankings had nothing to do with market or brand leadership.

Net, these findings reinforce what search marketers have instinctively believed for years: If you're not ranking well for your desired search terms, brand names and other important key words and phrases, you're missing out on significant, highly qualified traffic.

A full copy of the iProspect Search Engine User Behavior Study can be downloaded from:
http://www.iprospect.com/about/searchenginemarketingwhitepapers.htm
(no registration required)

A UK Perspective on Searcher Behavior

In a separate study, UK based online marketing firm Harvest Digital surveyed "experienced" internet users about their attitudes toward search. Unsurprisingly, a majority of people reported using Google, but notably, only 24% reported using a single search engine. A full 20% said they regularly used four or more search engines.

Why use so many? UK users, despite relying heavily on search engines as a significant source of information, don't trust the results they get. Just 22% of users reported that they were confident that search engines would always give them the information that they needed.

But users blame themselves, not the engines. Just 8% said the problem was poor search engine performance. Many more said the problem was caused by their use of the engine, with 36% saying that they were not using correct terms and a further 32% said that they were looking for information that was too specialized.

The remaining 24% blamed search advertisers, though it's not clear whether this result related to sponsored links or whether survey respondents thought advertisers were buying their way into the top of natural search results (the study didn't attempt to answer this question).

Supporting but also in contrast to the iProspect findings, 43% of searchers said that the most important reason for clicking on a result was that it appeared on the first page, with just 8% saying that the brand name or website looked reputable. 32% said the relevance of the description was most important, with 17% saying that a result at the top of the first page was the most important criteria.