What Clicks with Web Searchers

How do searchers find what they want online? Not the way you might think, according to a number of new studies that examined searcher behavior in a variety of situations.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2005 Conference, February 28 – March 3, 2005, New York, NY.

Some of the surprising, almost counter-intuitive findings from this research: Most people begin shopping searches using generic searches long before they get down to brands. Most click on one of the top three listings, if one interests them. Most—more than half—click on the first paid search result. People also take their time shopping, as long as several weeks in many cases. And no big surprise: searchers continue to prefer Google, though Yahoo, MSN and AskJeeves are gaining share.

While conventional search wisdom says advertising on topics produces lower ROI than advertising on brand names, a recent DoubleClick study has shown that “buyers clearly favor generic terms early in the buying cycle,” according to Cam Balzer of Performics, DoubleClick’s search marketing division. Further, searchers do a lot of research before buying, affording nearly five touch points on average. A majority of 70 to 80 percent of buyers searched on generic terms, with searches on brand names peaking immediately before purchase.

Balzer’s team studied online shopper habits in four verticals: apparel, computer hardware, travel, and sports and fitness for thirty days, using ComScore stats. Their findings shoot down another staple of conventional e-tailing wisdom: immediacy of purchase. On the contrary, online shoppers don’t appear to be in a hurry. Though many marketers evaluate the success of search marketing programs based only on a shorter window, more than half of buyers in the travel category made their last search two or more weeks before purchasing.

Brand managers take note: More than 92 percent of searchers never use brand names as search terms. “Generic keywords drive activity that later converts to brands,” reported Balzer. Clearly, savvy online retailers will advertise on generic terms and place cookies for a minimum of 30 days on their shoppers to accurately track return on investment for purchases. “Short term cookies tell you nothing about long term return visitors,” he said.

An eye-tracking study performed by Enquiro, Did-it and Eyetools showed that most interest is in an area in the upper left corner of search results, dubbed Search’s Golden Triangle, with secondary interest at the top right where sponsored listings begin, according to Enquiro president Gord Hotchkiss. “The most important influencer appears to be ranking; it seems users trust their search engine to give them relevant results,” he reported. Three quarters of searchers click on the first link of interest. Below the Golden Triangle, searchers scan listings down the left and across when a title interests them, in a pattern resembling a letter “F”.

The Enquiro/Did-it eye-tracking study, reported in detail by SearchDay has spawned lively debate in forums. Study results nearly 60 percent of all the searchers clicked on the first three organic listings, and 85 percent clicked on the first three sponsored listings. The top two listings were most important: A full 75 percent selected just one of the first two and more than half choose only the first listing. If this finding can be extrapolated across all searcher behavior it is sure to further intensify competition for the top spots in search results.

Dr. Bonny Brown presented Keynote Systems overall customer experience results gathered by using a tool bar which captures volunteers’ browser activity. The study showed Google to be the most preferred search engine, with Yahoo and MSN and AskJeeves gaining share.

Keynote’s searcher behavior stats:

  • 3 in 4 participants began their search through a search engine or Web portal (source: Clickstreams)
  • 48% of participants used Google at some time during the task; 29% used Yahoo Search and 8% used MSN Search (source: Clickstreams)
  • 27% of participants searched for product information; 22% searched for a specific web site
  • 95 percent of users use Google sometimes or often, while 64 percent use it as their primary search engine
  • Few (17 percent) use different search engines for different types of searches
  • 92 percent have used a search engine to look for product or service information in the last six months
  • Nine percent cite relevance information as a key factor in choosing search engine
  • Only one in five get frustrated with searches; even fewer than that with product searches

Dr. Brown also noted, “We’re not seeing fast evolution of people’s ability to refine search. From time to time people type in same search string trying to get new answer.” It seems the only hope is for smarter search engines, rather than smarter users, she added with a smile.

Anne Kennedy is managing partner of Beyond Ink, a full service search marketing agency based in Portland, Maine.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Searcher Behavior discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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