User Behavior Confirms Marketing Truths

iProspect recently reported the results of a survey it conducted with the help of Jupiter Research. The study looked at web surfers’ online behavior, with a particular focus on how users conduct online searches with the search engines. While no specific search engine was singled out, the survey’s results can tell SEOs and SEMs a great deal about how they should be conducting their online campaigns.

The “Search Engine User Behavior Study,” published by iProspect in April of 2006, also reported the results of similar surveys it conducted in 2002 and 2004 for comparison. The sample sizes varied somewhat, with the earlier ones attracting roughly 1500 respondents each, and the most recent one attracting well over 2000 participants. Nevertheless, the companies administering the surveys took care to make sure that each sample was representative of the U.S. online population as a whole at the time each survey was conducted.

This means that the iProspect study not only tells us how surfers use search engines now, but also shows trends in search engine behavior over time. Most of these trends confirm what many SEOs and SEMs have known for quite some time. Still, while there may not be many surprises in the study, it’s helpful to have something to back you up when you’re trying to drive your point home to a client about the importance of optimizing their website to rank high on the search engine results pages.

One final note before I plunge into the study’s findings: you can expect certain significant differences in the results if the survey is conducted again in 2008. While some trends may solidify to an even greater degree, at least one “trend” should actually weaken as the general population of web surfers becomes more sophisticated. This means online marketers should do their best to cash in on it now.

It’s been repeated over and over again that searchers never look past the first three pages of search engine results, so if your website is not listed in the top 30 you might as well not exist. This study resoundingly confirmed that truism. Only 10 percent of search engine users surveyed stated that they look past the first three pages – so you wouldn’t be seen by 90 percent of web surfers. Even worse, a full 62 percent don’t even bother to look past the first page of results.

It wasn’t always quite this cut and dried. Back in 2002, less than half of search engine users looked at only the first page of results. Also at that time, nearly twice as many users were willing to check out results past the third page. The percentages for 2004 are between those for 2002 and 2006, being very nearly at 2006 levels.

Why are search engine users only looking at relatively few results now as opposed to four years ago? There are a number of possibilities. One is that search engines have become far more efficient in the last four years at returning truly relevant results; there is some evidence to support this theory. Given how much they’ve spent on research and development, one would hope their efficacy had improved! Another possibility is that users are more impatient now, and expect quicker results to their queries, without having to wade through a lot of extraneous links.

There are a few more possible reasons worth considering. Taking a look at the other side of search engines becoming more efficient, SEOs may also have become more efficient, doing a better job of optimizing websites for the search engines and making sure that site content is truly relevant. There are also more websites that are professionally optimized than there were in 2002. Finally, there is the likelihood that search engine users themselves have become more efficient, able to conduct searches more effectively, so that they don’t need (or believe they shouldn’t need) to go past the first 30 results. It could easily be that a combination of all these factors is at work solidifying this “three page rule.”

It’s almost redundant to say that this makes search engine optimization more important than ever. If you needed numbers to validate this truth to your clients, you have them now. This trend is likely to continue as web surfers become increasingly savvy at using search engines, and the search engines get better at returning relevant results.

Another interesting attitude of searchers toward search engines is illuminated by what they do when they don’t find what they’re looking for. Only two percent of them give up. As for the rest, 41 percent who continue their search will change their search term and/or search engine if they don’t find what they’re looking for on the first page of results. More than twice as many (88 percent) will do so if they don’t find it in the first three pages.

Most of these unsatisfied searchers (82 percent) will continue their search using the same search engine that wasn’t helpful enough initially, but they will add more keywords to refine the search. This seems to indicate a certain amount of search engine loyalty. Indeed, when the same question was asked in 2002 (“When you perform a search on a search engine and don’t find what you are looking for, what are you typically more likely to do?”), less than 70 percent of searchers stuck with the same search engine – more than a quarter, in fact, switched search engines and entered the same keywords they’d used in their initial search.

iProspect offers an interesting interpretation of this study result. “This finding seems to indicate that a fairly high level of confidence exists on the part of users across search engines in general, as the vast majority seems to trust their search engine of choice to return the correct information more than they trust themselves to enter the appropriate keywords.” In short, search engine loyalty is real. Again, this is something that SEOs and SEMs have known for some time, but here are the figures to prove it.

So what does this mean specifically for SEOs and SEMs as far as their marketing campaigns? Well, since web surfers are using longer keywords when they can’t find what they’re looking for, marketers and SEOs should try to do a better job of targeting these keywords. With Google, you can use their “broad match” functionality within their paid search campaigns, and balance this with the strategic use of “negative matching” or “exclusions.” You can do something similar with Yahoo’s search ad marketing. Incidentally, the longer, very specific keywords that don’t individually yield a lot of traffic, but significant numbers of both traffic and conversions collectively, is what is meant by “the long tail of search.”

Finally I’ve reached one of the more unusual findings of the survey. Back in 2002, survey respondents were asked to “Please state how much you agree/disagree with the following statement: ‘Seeing a company listed among the top results on a search engine makes me think that the company is a top one within its field.’” Fully one third of the respondents (33 percent) agreed with the statement, while the rest disagreed.

The result was nearly flat for 2006. Thirty-six percent agreed with the statement. In this version of the survey, though, respondents were given the option of neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Thirty-nine percent took this neutral stance, while one-quarter disagreed with the statement.

Why do so many search engine users subscribe to this equation? Indeed, why does roughly the same percentage continue to do so after four years? iProspect doesn’t think it’s the same users believing the same thing; rather, as experienced web surfers become more savvy, new web surfers join the population, thus keeping the percentages similar. With the total population of U.S. households with a computer (and presumably Internet access) expected to reach a saturation point well before the end of this decade, the percentage of users who believe top of search engine rankings equals top of field can be expected to go down.

What does that mean for search engine marketers? Well, if some significant percentage of web surfers seem to think that search engines put some variable equating to “industry leadership” into their algorithms, they should take advantage of that while they can. Indeed, iProspect suggests that “Brand marketers would be well advised to not only pay attention to, but also become involved in, the efforts of their search engine marketing colleagues, as it is clear that these efforts produce positive branding results.” Indeed, this is one “trend” that will probably not last too much longer.

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