Sell the Information-Gatherers

In our rush to embrace search engine marketing, are we skipping half the issue?

Maybe. Here’s why.

The classic model most of us use when figuring out how people find things online is fairly simple. Customer has need. Customer doesn’t know how to fill need. Customer goes to search engine. Customer conducts keyword search and starts clicking links. Hopefully, customer finds what customer wants and buys it.

Sounds simple. It’s why so many of us are spending lots of money (or our clients’ money) buying keywords. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily entirely true.

Why? Search behavior isn’t that simple. It’s not a linear process of keyword search to result. Search behavior (in a commercial context, buying decision behavior) is much more complex.

First and foremost, search isn’t confined to search engine keyword search. It entails searching and browsing. (Disagree? Head on over to academic paper search engine CiteSeer and do a couple searches on “search behavior.” You’ll find plenty of research to chew on.) A user types in some keywords, gets some results, and starts clicking links. They may find what they want right away (the result we hope — and pay — for). They may sort of find what they want and start browsing around within a site. They may follow links to other sites. Or, they may just give up and start over. Whatever path they choose, typing those keywords is the beginning of the process, not the end.

In 1989, Marcia Bates wrote a great paper on search behavior. She labels the process people use to find information “berrypicking.” As with actual berry-picking behavior, people forage from one information bush to another, plucking nuggets of information where they find them, storing them for later use, then moving on. Although the paper was written before the Web existed as we think of it today, if you look at your own behavior (or that of your customers), you’ll see it still applies. It has major implications for how we should use search engines to market online.

If people do search this way (and they do), it’s important to concentrate on keywords and provide an easy way for people to “pick” your information as they go through the searching and buying decision process. Providing downloadable sell sheets and presentations (in the form of PDFs or PowerPoint files), one-page printable overviews or product descriptions, and “email to a friend” functionality is vital. You want your products and services to be easy to pick as people go through the search process. Merely getting them to show up isn’t enough.

Viewing search as a holistic browsing/discovery activity underscores why online advertising and PR remain important. Sure, we all know the facts and figures about ad performance. But perhaps we’ve been missing the big picture. Ads may not be the only driver of traffic, but their presence is vital to catch the browsing part of the product-finding process.

In this model, contextual advertising becomes even more important. By inserting links into the content people find during their searches, you add another link to the berrypicking chain. Being there is important, but being there amid relevant content is the trick. Don’t think of ads as standalone traffic drivers, but as links that provide another channel of opportunity to drive traffic.

As we’re discovering (and rediscovering every day), online marketing is very complex. Don’t get hung up on one method. Buy and place in a manner that mirrors the way people actually use the Internet. Your customers use the Web in an integrated fashion. You should market that way, too.

Be the berry.

Sean is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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