What Power Searchers Do and Don’t Tell Us About User Behavior

If you’re anything like me, a trying aspect of your SEM (define) work involves finding balance between quickly finding search statistics that help you do your job better and avoiding the quicksand of interesting statistics that ultimately don’t add value to initiatives for your clients or company.

The Rise of the Power Searcher

This need to determine data’s helpfulness is why I’m so intrigued by a trend Jeremy Crane identifies in a Compete blog entry. Based on the analytics company’s data, Crane points out that 20 percent of searchers account for 70 percent to 75 percent of all searches performed, depending on the search engine.

I find this information fascinating (although not entirely unpredictable, once I thought about it) and in every way noteworthy. I’m not entirely sure, though, if it can help me do my job better.

According to my Google Web History, I made 851 searches in October. Be assured that I didn’t buy much. I estimate that about half the time, I didn’t even click any results. Most of my searches monitor how Google, Yahoo, and Live return results, not necessarily the results themselves. So power-searching habits like these surely help create those high search numbers for that top 20th percentile of searchers.

Still, while we might dream otherwise, search marketers are a trivial slice of the overall search pie. I estimate that a much larger portion of the power searchers consists of students, teachers, researchers, and businesspeople whose jobs rely on the rapid collection of random bits of information.

Is Search a Conduit or a Terminus?

And what happens when a search engine does its job too well? Certainly it changes the DNA of the content provider/search engine relationship.

This concept becomes important when one considers that in many cases, one doesn’t click any results on a search results page. (Frequently, if I click anything, it’s the cached copy of a page, because I’m more concerned with the page the engine saw, not the page as it exists today.)

In a previous blog entry, Crane notes a different set of numbers, equally as interesting. Again, depending on the engine, anywhere from 25 percent to 41 percent of queries don’t result in a search referral at all. In other words, in (roughly) one-third of searches performed, users either decide to refine their query and search again, get distracted and switch tasks, or find the information they need on the results page itself, negating the need to click further.

This last point is worth exploring. If I search for “california wildfires death toll” on Yahoo News, I can quickly skim the results and, paired with the dates in the URLs, ascertain a pretty close estimate.

This paradox sums up a complaint that news sites have had for years. When the news portion of a search engine does its job really well, there’s frequently no need to visit the news sites themselves, because our eyes can get enough information from the aggregated content to answer most superficial information-retrieval requests.

What Does This Mean for My Site?

Data like Compete’s brings up some interesting questions for content developers whose business model relies on bringing people to the site. First, how do we optimize for the power searcher? Should we even bother? If you miss out on researchers, students looking for quick answers, and other rapid power searchers, have you missed out on searchers who would have taken desired actions on your site, or have you simply saved some bandwidth? If you sell ads based on impressions and page views, then all traffic is important. But if you’re selling products or signing up long-term users, I don’t think these users are who you’re after.

If you already have high-quality, user-friendly copy, it’s probably not worthwhile to re-optimize it based on the uncertain data surrounding this enigmatic group of searchers. But it might be worthwhile to go back to the SERP (define) and look at how your data appears for different queries.

If your business revolves around well-optimized content that delivers quick answers to common questions, determine whether your page descriptions give the milk away for free, when users could instead come to your site to buy the cow. But I believe that’s a small percentage of sites. If you’re more interested in bringing on users for the long term with specialized, comprehensive data they won’t find elsewhere, just keep doing what you’re doing, and forget that searchers like me even exist.

Join us for SES Chicago on December 3-6 and training classes on December 7.

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