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Search Research Comes of Age

  |  May 2, 2003   |  Comments

Previously unknowable metrics such as 'share of search' can be yours at last.

Once you are up and running with search marketing campaigns, your most important search engine traffic research will involve site-related data. Use whatever tools and vendors fit your budget and help you to meet your measurement and optimization objectives on an ongoing basis.

During the planning stage and throughout a successful campaign, external search engine traffic data can be amazingly helpful. Information resources for search engine traffic have improved recently. Larger, more sophisticated marketers can now tap information and get customized reports that answer questions they couldn't even ask before. The answers to these questions give marketers a competitive advantage, as well-targeted research often does.

Search Behavior Data: comScore's qSearch

Monday, comScore Media Metrix announced qSearch, a research tool for consumer search activity. The tool provides data about search:

This capability is based on a representative cross-section of more than 1.5 million global Internet users who have given comScore explicit permission to confidentially capture their Web-wide browsing, buying and other transaction behavior, including offline purchasing.

One element of interest to marketers is the source of the search traffic. The comScore system provides a breakdown of search activity by home, work, and university locations:

For example, while Google and Yahoo are the share leaders in at-work searching (27 percent and 26 percent, respectively), MSN has the highest proportion (51 percent) of its total searches conducted by at-work users.

Of course, just because a search is occurring at work doesn't mean search is work related, particularly at lunchtime (see the mortgage example below). However, consumer location information may help in planning creative across the different engines. The comScore press release covers the highlights, but the company can break down reports far more granularly.

The initial qSearch release was big news. But based on discussions I had with James Lamberti and others at comScore, the real power of the qSearch system will be announced within the next several weeks. For example, this highly targeted data will allow you to get a report by keyword. ComScore did a sample "mortgage" report for me, and the key findings for a marketer can be summed up in these charts.

More Questions You Never Thought to Ask

With panel data on search behavior, you can start imagining all the competitive search-related information you never had access to before. My wish list of questions starts with client queries I currently receive, stretching back to my agency days. For example, marketers often ask me for competitive information data such as spend, share of voice (SOV), and media venue.

In traditional media, we were spoiled -- CMR and other sources gave us data about what the competition was spending. Tear sheets and reels of competitive advertising completed the picture. Welcome to search. We still can't tell exactly what the competition is spending (except on a keyword basis when we find one of their listings), but imagine if a report could tell you what searches resulted in visits to your competition's site!

Some other questions for my clients I'd love to see answers for:

  • How well is search performing, when it comes to conversion rates, for my competitors compared to us?

  • Are search visitors calling on more than one competitor or selecting their primary choices immediately?

  • How do the income levels of search visitors at my competitor's site compare to those at mine?

  • How do competitive page views from search traffic compare to mine?

  • What is my share of search (the search equivalent of SOV)?

View Multiple Data Sources

It is my policy never to rely on one source of data if a secondary source is available. No source is perfect, nor will one likely fit your needs perfectly (except perhaps your own site data). One reason why you need to view multiple data sources is to validate your findings.

For example, the comScore mortgages report shows the distribution of mortgage search terms as being somewhat different than what you see at Overture or Wordtracker. In addition, certain results from comScore stand out as being anomalous. The comScore mortgage report lists the key phrase "1st mortgage rates calculator" as the fifth most-popular search phrase for "mortgage" as a keyword, resulting in 1.35 percent of all the mortgage searches and approximately 65,000 searches. The Overture suggestion tool, which bases findings on the prior month's searches across the Overture network, puts the number of searches for the same phrase at 71.

What could cause such a difference? My guess is one of the smaller portals has a link prominently displayed with "1st mortgage rates calculator" precoded into the link, causing all who click there to be counted as searchers for that phrase. Obviously, that portal is not part of the Overture network, and that one link influenced comScore's data. There are other possibilities as well, given the way panels behave.

It will be interesting to see if any of the other panel-based online media measurement firms release a similar tool to qSearch. Nielsen//NetRatings certainly has a panel (although its size and makeup are different from comScore's) and could potentially generate similar reports based on its raw data, depending on the measurement methodology.

Alexa has a panel, as well as a spider, for data collection, although I'm sure there are really cool reports only Amazon.com gets to see (Amazon owns Alexa). For that matter, all the large browser enhancement companies (Gator, WhenU, eZula) have many users, which could be used as research panels of sorts. These companies base their ad revenue models on user behaviors. They're surely collecting data about behavior, particularly when it indicates the user is at a point at which an ad might be effective.

Web Server Data

Online research data doesn't stop with panel research, however. Depending on the kinds of questions you have, data from the Web server side may be far more appropriate. Your own Web server is a fountain of great data, collected by either your analytics team (through logs or tools built internally) or an outsourced third party (typically a pixel or JavaScript-based data collection method).

Envision the outcome if instead of just your own Web log usage data, you could look at the data of tens of thousands of sites, sliced, diced, and aggregated. That's the idea behind StatMarket, the division of WebSideStory that specializes in aggregated surfer and searcher research and data.

StatMarket looks at how many searchers arrived at its many thousands of participating sites from the different search engines and determines percentages. comScore, however, looks at the same activity from the surfer perspective. Let's see how the data compares.

Again, the data doesn't match perfectly, but it's close enough that both sources can be accurate, based on their measurement methods. After all, they may define users differently. Perhaps some search engines have users who click on more links than average, bringing their StatMarket numbers up. For instance, searchers may generate more visits to sites per session from Google than from AOL, meaning more sites receive visitors from Google per searcher than from AOL.

There are a bunch of additional reasons the data might not match. The general idea is to know the questions you want answered and find out which company's data might provide an actionable, valid answer (preferably at a reasonable cost).

Surveys

But wait -- there's more. If you really need answers for your site and marketing campaign and the information cannot be gained from simply looking at the behavior of your visitors, then a survey might be just the thing. User intercept surveys can be used to test media -- comScore, Millward Brown IntelliQuest, and Dynamic Logic can assist in measuring brand lift and other success metrics that go beyond site behavior. There are also other site-based survey tools that can be used to get answers to questions regarding site traffic that originates from search. I'll cover those tools in the future.

Search research has come of age. Don't sit in the dark wondering about competitive data or general marketplace data. Tap the information sources and get the answers to the questions you haven't even thought to ask yet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee, Didit cofounder and executive chairman, has been an acknowledged search engine marketing expert since 1995. His years of SEM expertise provide the foundation for Didit's proprietary Maestro search campaign technology. The company's unparalleled results, custom strategies, and client growth have earned it recognition not only among marketers but also as part of the 2007 Inc 500 (No. 137) as well as three-time Deloitte's Fast 500 placement. Kevin's latest book, "Search Engine Advertising" has been widely praised.

Industry leadership includes being a founding board member of SEMPO and its first elected chairman. "The Wall St. Journal," "BusinessWeek," "The New York Times," Bloomberg, CNET, "USA Today," "San Jose Mercury News," and other press quote Kevin regularly. Kevin lectures at leading industry conferences, plus New York, Columbia, Fordham, and Pace universities. Kevin earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1992 and lives in Manhattan with his wife, a New York psychologist and children.

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