Trends to Watch in Search Behavior

Certain trends in the behavior of web surfers conducting searches on the Internet confirm what SEOs have long suspected or considered “common knowledge.” Others just seem to make intuitive sense, while still others might be a little surprising. Keep reading to learn how you can take advantage of these various trends.

If old hippie slogans could be applied to search, most web surfers might groove to “Think Globally, Act Locally.” That could be used to characterize some of the findings of the Kelsey Research, as reported by Greg Sterling, former Senior Vice President and Program Director of Interactive Local Media at the Kelsey Group. He spoke about search at a recent Search Engine Strategies conference in New York. I’ll begin detailing those findings by showing you the general outlines of how search fits into the activity of the average Netizen.

According to Kelsey Research, search is now second only to email as the most important online activity. The gap between the two is fairly small and closing rapidly. About one third of those who shop online use only one search engine; a little more than half use two or three; while one out of ten say they use four or more search engines on a regular basis. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has seen figures for the percentages of searches handled worldwide by the major search engines.

The chances are, though, that these searchers are looking for something not very far from their own backyard. “Forty-three percent of search engine users are seeking a local merchant to buy something offline,” Sterling emphasized, “and 54 percent of search users have substituted Internet/search for the phone book, mostly for specific local lookups. Local is growing faster than general web search.” This is probably a much more literal way of letting your fingers do the walking than the Yellow Pages ever intended!

This implies that anyone who doesn’t take local search into consideration may be missing out on an important opportunity. This doesn’t mean that companies concerned with campaigns at the national level are going to lose out to Joe’s Hardware Store, of course (and I’ll cover branding a little later in this article). But it’s another example of how important it is to know how surfers use search engines.

If your client has a brand they want to promote, you’ll want to look at the research done by search marketing firms 360i and SearchIgnite. The two companies put together a white paper entitled “Giving Clicks Credit Where They’re Due: What You Need to Know When Allocating Your Search Budget.” It must have been painstaking work, because they tracked the click path from initial click to conversion in research that spanned more than 3.5 million users and 5.1 million clicks during the first quarter of 2006.

The firms were interested in discovering how searchers use branded and non-branded terms when they click on paid search ads. Not surprisingly, most searchers start with generic, non-branded terms and then narrow down their search to brand terms when they’re getting ready to make a purchase. While those whose first and last clicks are on branded terms were most likely to convert, those who started with a non-brand term and finished with a brand term were nearly as likely to convert.

It’s worth noting, too, that those who used non-brand terms throughout the search process were only one-seventh as likely to convert as those who started with a non-brand term and switched to brand terms. This is important because it implies that SEMs should not ignore non-brand terms, but rather try to “herd” those using generic terms toward brand terms to increase the likelihood of converting.

This is reminiscent of what Alan Rimm-Kaufman, president Rimm-Kaufman Group LLC, spoke about at the Search Engine Strategies conference when he discussed the significance of click streams. “Click streams involve starting at generic search phrases and narrowing down to specific, more relevant ones,” he said. “Both segments are important, as searches themselves typically begin with generic phrases (which are higher up in the conversion funnel) and these generic phrases lay the groundwork for more specific searches.” In particular, he noted that “Conversions are typically 200%-300% higher for brand phrases.”

So what is the best way to approach this? If you’re interested in branding, do not ignore the generic phrases. On the other hand, you should understand that tracking ROI might be difficult. “Brand for brand, not ROI,” said Rimm-Kaufman. “Choosing to spend large sums on branding through generic keyword buys is a valid strategy. Realize, however, that such ad buys are about branding, not conversion.”

Another thing that the study by 360i and SearchIgnite discovered is that it is an excellent idea to get searchers to click on more than one ad. Searchers who completed a transaction, in fact, clicked on about 15 percent more ads than those who didn’t. The likelihood of completing a transaction seems to go up with the number of ads clicked. Those who clicked a search marketer’s ads 10 times were three times as likely to make a purchase as those who clicked an ad only once.

As searchers get closer to buying, they also make more detailed queries. This seems natural; they’re getting a better handle on exactly what they want. While most searchers may be starting with simple queries, the ones that lead to conversions often aren’t so short. While less than ten percent of the study sample used multiple unique keywords, they accounted for almost 20 percent of all completed transactions.

This is an example of the “long tail” in action. It shows how search engine advertisers can make money from the very specific queries that may not be used nearly as often, but are more likely to lead to a sale. If you want a high return on your advertising investment, you owe it to yourself to take a look at how you can make this work for you.

The two companies know there are other questions worth asking, and plan to take a deeper look at search behavior. “We’re also aware of other questions that have yet to be answered,” they state in the report. “How do interactions with natural search and other forms of interactive marketing affect the results? How do these findings impact transactional metrics such as average order size and return on ad spending? How does offline brand equity play a role? For the scope of this report, we’ve had to be selective as to which questions we tackle, but we will delve deeper into these questions and others as we proceed with this research.”

Certain industries are affected by searcher behavior more strongly than others. At the Search Engine Strategies conference, Diane Rinaldo, Director of Retail Category at Yahoo Search Marketing, addressed this topic. You might be surprised by some of the fields that feel the influence of search the most.

Take the auto industry. It’s been around for a hundred years, and while you can purchase cars online, one would think a car shopper would want to check vehicles out in person and take a test drive. That may be true, but where does the shopping begin? “The majority of auto purchasers stated that search was one of the first places they turned for information,” said Rinaldo. “Search also helped half narrow the vehicle they ultimately purchased.”

This fits in well with the idea that most people use search on the Internet to find information. Not surprisingly, it’s also why the voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) industry is also strongly affected by searcher behavior. “Most consumers use search to learn,” according to Rinaldo. “Consumers feel that search is significantly more effective for general VoIP learning and brand differentiation versus other sources.”

The third industry she named was quite surprising, at least to me. Apparel? Isn’t clothing far too personal an item to search for online? Apparently not – especially when, as with the auto industry, online searches are used to facilitate an offline purchase. “Offline buyers report using search for multiple reasons, including finding a store, price comparison and finding specialty items. They also use search for keeping up to date on styles and deciding what to buy, behaviors that are higher in the funnel.” Her next statement should make anyone who is interested in reaching the teen market sit up and take notice. “For teen fashions, search is more effective for learning about brands than any other measured source, including magazines and friends.”

As you build your next SEM campaign, and do SEO for your site (or your clients’), think carefully about these trends in searcher behavior. Finding ways to tap into them should help deliver the conversions we all hope to see at the end of the day.

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