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Evolved Search Behaviors: Take Aways for Marketers

In the last two columns, I first looked at the origins of the original Golden Triangle, and then looked at how search behaviors have evolved in the last 9 years, according to a new eye tracking study from Mediative. In today’s column, I’ll try to pick out a few “so whats” for search marketers.

It’s not about Location, It’s About Intent

In 2005, search marketing as all about location. It was about grabbing a part of the Golden Triangle, and the higher, the better. The delta between scanning and clicks from the first organic result to the second was dramatic – by a factor of 2 to 1! Similar differences were seen in the top paid results. It’s as if, given the number of options available on the page (usually between 12 and 18, depending on the number of ads showing) searchers used position as a quick and dirty way to filter results, reasoning that the higher the result, the better match it would be to their intent.

In 2014, however, it’s a very different story. Because the first scan is now to find the most appropriate chunk, the importance of being high on the page is significantly lessened. Also, once the second step of scanning has begun, within a results chunk, there seems to be more vertical scanning within the chunk and less lateral scanning. Mediative found that in some instances, it was the third or fourth listing in a chunk that attracted the most attention, depending on content, format and user intent. For example, in the heat map shown below, the third organic result actually got as many clicks as the first, capturing 26% of all the clicks on the page and 15% of the time spent on page. The reason could be because it was the only listing that had the Google Ratings Rich Snippet because of the proper use of structured data mark up. In this case, the information scent that promised user reviews was a strong match with user intent, but you would only know this if you knew what that intent was.

Google-Ford-Fiesta

This change in user search scanning strategies makes it more important than ever to understand the most common user intents that would make them turn to a search engine. What will be the decision steps they go through and at which of those steps might they turn to a search engine? Would it be to discover a solution to an identified need, to find out more about a known solution, to help build a consideration set for direct comparisons, to look for one specific piece of information (ie a price) or to navigate to one particular destination, perhaps to order online? If you know why your prospects might use search, you’ll have a much better idea of what you need to do with your content to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time with the right content.  Nothing shows this clearer than the following comparison of heat maps. The one on the left was the heat map produced when searchers were given a scenario that required them to gather information. The one on the right resulted from a scenario where searchers had to find a site to navigate to. You can see the dramatic difference in scanning behaviors.

Intent-compared-2

If search used to be about location, location, location, it’s now about intent, intent, intent.

Organic Optimization Matters More than Ever!

Search marketers have been saying that organic optimization has been dying for at least two decades now, ever since I got into this industry. Guess what? Not only is organic optimization not dead, it’s now more important than ever! In Enquiro’s original 2005 study, the top two sponsored ads captured 14.1% of all clicks. In Mediative’s 2014 follow up, the number really didn’t change that much, edging up to 14.5% What did change was the relevance of the rest of the listings on the page. In 2005, all the organic results combined captured 56.7% of the clicks. That left about 29% of the users either going to the second page of results, launching a new search or clicking on one of the side sponsored ads (this only accounted for small fraction of the clicks). In 2014, the organic results, including all the different category “chunks,” captured 74.6% of the remaining clicks. This leaves only 11% either clicking on the side ads (again, a tiny percentage) or either going to the second page or launching a new search. That means that Google has upped their first page success rate to an impressive 90%.

First of all, that means you really need to break onto the first page of results to gain any visibility at all. If you can’t do it organically, make sure you pay for presence. But secondly, it means that of all the clicks on the page, some type of organic result is capturing 84% of them. The trick is to know which type of organic result will capture the click – and to do that you need to know the user’s intent (see above). But you also need to optimize across your entire content portfolio. With my own blog, two of the biggest traffic referrers happen to be image searches.

Left Gets to Lead

The Left side of the results page has always been important but the evolution of scanning behaviors now makes it vital. The heat map below shows just how important it is to seed the left hand of results with information scent.

Googlelefthand

Last week, I talked about how the categorization of results had caused us to adopt a two stage scanning strategy, the first to determine which “chunks” of result categories are the best match to intent, and the second to evaluated the listings in the most relevant chunks. The vertical scan down the left hand of the page is where we decide which “chunks” of results are the most promising. And, in the second scan, because of the improved relevancy, we often make the decision to click without a lot of horizontal scanning to qualify our choice. Remember, we’re only spending a little over a second scanning the result before we click. This is just enough to pick up the barest whiffs of information scent, and almost all of the scent comes from the left side of the listing. Look at the three choices above that captured the majority of scanning and clicks. The search was for “home decor store toronto.” The first popular result was a local result for the well known brand Crate and Barrel. This reinforces how important brands can be if they show up on the left side of the result set. The second popular result was a website listing for another well known brand – The Pottery Barn. The third was a link to Yelp – a directory site that offered a choice of options. In all cases, the scent found in the far left of the result was enough to capture a click. There was almost no lateral scanning to the right. When crafting titles, snippets and metadata, make sure you stack information scent to the left.

In the end, there are no magic bullets from this latest glimpse into search behaviors. It still comes down to the five foundational planks that have always underpinned good search marketing:

  1. Understand your user’s intent
  2. Provide a rich portfolio of content and functionality aligned with those intents
  3. Ensure your content appears at or near the top of search results, either through organic optimization or well run search campaigns
  4. Provide relevant information scent to capture clicks
  5. Make sure you deliver on what you promise post-click

Sure, the game is a little more complex than it was 9 years ago, but the rules haven’t changed.