Searcher Behavior Research Update

Two new studies examining how people search show Internet users are becoming more discriminating, with important implications for search marketers.

As part of ongoing work conducted by JupiterResearch and sponsored by iProspect, “The iProspect Search Engine User Behavior Study” finds 62 percent of search engine users click on a search result on the first search results page and 90 percent click on a result one of the first three pages.

These figures were just 48 percent and 81 percent in 2002, based on similar research iProspect did at the time.

Search marketers should take note of these findings, as they emphasize the importance of appearing on the first few pages of search results, whether in natural or sponsored listings. The message is clear: you can’t rely on just SEO (define) or search advertising if you want qualified prospects to find you. You must invest the time and resources in both types of SEM (define), or risk being overlooked.

These findings, while interesting and important in themselves, raise several questions:

  • Are searchers becoming more sophisticated and demanding, or are they getting lazier and more easily satisfied?
  • Have search engines improved so significantly over the past four years that most people find what they want on the first page of results?
  • Apart from quality search results, how have user attitudes toward marketing and branding messages changed?

Partially answering the first question, results of the iProspect study suggest at least a certain percentage of searchers are becoming more sophisticated and demanding.

For example, 41 percent of search engine users who continue their search when they don’t find satisfactory results on the first page do one of two things: change engines or change search terms. Four years ago, just 28 percent did.

Even more determined are users who don’t find what they’re looking for at all on their first try. Fully 88 percent of these users change engines or change their search terms, up from 78 percent in 2002.

But these figures mask a somewhat paradoxical finding related to loyalty: 82 percent of search engine users relaunch an unsuccessful search using the same search engine used initially, adding more keywords to their query. Just 68 percent stayed with the same engine in 2002.

This suggests searchers aren’t only loyal, they’re increasingly going out on the long tail, using lengthier queries. For search marketers, this means if you’re not targeting both simple keywords and lengthier keyword-rich phrases, you’re likely missing out on a significant amount of traffic that simply wasn’t there a few years ago.

The study also concludes that with more searchers persisting with the same engine despite failed initial searches, user loyalty has been earned. In other words, in staying with the same engine and using a different or longer query, searchers are implicitly saying the problem is with their own search strategy, not with the search engine.

What about branding? The study found 36 percent believe companies whose Web sites are returned at the top of the search results are the top companies in their field. Slightly more (39 percent) were neutral on this question. At the other end of the spectrum, just 25 percent said top search engine rankings had nothing to do with market or brand leadership.

In all, these findings reinforce what search marketers have instinctively believed for years: if you’re not ranking well for your desired search terms, brand names, and other important keywords and keyword phrases, you’re missing out on significant, highly qualified traffic.

A full copy of the study can be downloaded here.

A U.K. Perspective on Searcher Behavior

In a separate study, U.K.-based online marketing firm Harvest Digital surveyed “experienced” Internet users about their attitudes toward search. Unsurprisingly, a majority reported using Google, but notably, only 24 percent reported using a single search engine. A full 20 percent said they regularly used four or more search engines.

Why so many? U.K. users, despite relying heavily on search engines as a significant source of information, don’t trust the results. Just 22 percent of users reported they were confident search engines would always give them the information they needed.

Users blame themselves, not the engines. Just 8 percent said the problem was poor search engine performance. Many more said problems were caused by their use of the engine, with 36 percent saying they weren’t using correct terms. A further 32 percent said they were looking for information that was too specialized.

The remaining 24 percent blamed search advertisers, though it’s not clear whether this related to sponsored links or if survey respondents thought advertisers were buying their way into the top of natural search results (the study didn’t attempt to answer this).

Supporting, but also in contrast to, the iProspect findings, 43 percent of searchers said the most important reason for clicking on a result was it appeared on the first page, with just 8 percent saying the brand name or Web site looked reputable. Thirty-two percent said the description’s relevance was most important, with 17 percent saying a result at the top of the first page was the most important criteria.

Harvest Digital’s searcher behavior report can be downloaded from here (registration required).

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