Avoiding the Search Gap

Are you a victim of the search gap? Well, you could easily become one if you focus all of your efforts on getting people to your Web site via search engines instead of considering what happens to them after they arrive.

Over the past few years, study after study has consistently found that search engines are one of the most popular ways people find Web sites. But some recent studies have also provided the apparently conflicting view that only a small percentage of a Web site’s traffic comes from search engines.

A recently released study by Booz7Allen & Hamilton found that a healthy 33 percent of Internet-user sessions involve searching at search engines and portals. Given this, one might assume that Web sites on the receiving end of all this searching ought to get somewhere near 33 percent of their traffic from search engines. Instead, the study found that Web sites get a scant 6 percent of their traffic from search engines and portals.

Similarly, a study released by StatMarket last December found that only about 7 percent of Web sites get traffic from search engines. Many in the search engine optimization industry were dubious about this seemingly low number when it appeared. The people at StatMarket can now feel some vindication, given that the Booz7Allen study backs up their finding.

The high usage of search engines found by past surveys and the low traffic generated by search engines highlighted in the recent surveys are not in conflict. This “search gap,” as I call it, comes naturally from the fact that once someone has found a Web site that satisfies a particular desire, he or she will probably go directly to that site in the future, rather than navigate to it via a search engine.

For example, let’s say you want to buy a particular book. You do a search at your favorite search engine and find a page from Amazon.com about the book. You visit the Amazon.com site, like the price and information you are shown, and purchase the book. Thanks to search engines, Amazon.com has gained a new customer.

A month later, you need another book. Remembering your positive experience at Amazon.com, you go directly to the Web site rather than using a search engine to find it. Thus, your second visit isn’t credited to search engines. However, it would have never occurred if you hadn’t found Amazon.com via search engines the first time and had a favorable impression of the site.

So once people find trusted sites, they return to them directly for particular needs — thus accounting for the relatively low traffic the StatMarket and Booz7Allen studies say is generated by search engines. However, because our needs are wide-ranging, we are constantly searching for new things — which accounts for the overall high usage of search engines that other studies find.

It would be a mistake to interpret the search gap as meaning that search engines are not important. Search engines remain one of the top ways users initially locate Web sites and cannot be ignored. Instead, the real lesson of the search gap is the age-old adage that first impressions do count. Make a good first impression when people initially come to your site via a search engine (or search engines), and they may come back directly to you in the future.

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