The 70/30 Rule of Search

First published on Jan 20, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In nature, there are the Fibonacci numbers. This sequence (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13…) and the Golden ratio (Phi or 1.618034) derived from it, occur with amazing frequency and can be found in flowers, the shells of mollusks, leaf arrangements, and even the proportions of the human body. I’m beginning to believe that search marketing has its own naturally reoccurring ratio, and I’ve dubbed it the 70/30 Rule.

I can’t help thinking that many of us are missing the boat when it comes to search marketing. Perhaps not the whole boat, but 70 percent of it. Every day, new research is coming out which points to there being a vast, untapped potential in search. We’ve picked the low hanging fruit, but there’s a whole tree full of rich marketing results that we have to reach a little further for. And when analysts like Safa Rashtchy and the gang at JupiterMedia point to doubling, tripling, and quadrupling revenues from search over the next five years, it’s based on assumptions that marketers will figure out ways to better tap into the full potential of search.

As I write, I know there’s a posse of irate search marketers who are whispering, “How dare he refute our expertise in this area! Low hanging fruit, indeed. The nerve!” As back up to my observation, here are just three examples that come to mind of where the 70/30 rule seems to apply.

Seventy percent organic 30 percent sponsored A little while back I was presenting a session at Search Engine Strategies about balancing organic and paid search strategies. I had a typical search results page from Google up on the screen. I asked the audience which section of the page they normally look at first. Almost every hand in the audience went up when I got to the top organic results. This was no great surprise. From our research into search user behavior, I was pretty sure this would be the case.

Then I asked who in the audience dedicated at least 30 percent of their search marketing budget to organic optimization. Very few hands went up, probably less than 3 percent of the audience.

Does anybody else see the disconnect here? This is not a new message. Study after study has shown that about 70 percent of all search engine clicks happen on the organic results. Yet sponsored search continues to take the spotlight and the lion’s share of the budget, while for many, organic optimization seems stuck as a little understood and even less trusted tactic only fully utilized by online casinos and porn merchants.

Companies using search have to understand their consumers are going to look and click on organic listings more often than sponsored, and you can’t just ignore the fact. Yes it’s harder, yes it’s not guaranteed, and yes it may require some changes to your site, but 7 out of 10 people can’t be wrong!

Seventy percent researchers 30 percent purchasers When is a consumer likely to use a search engine? When they’re ready to buy? No! It’s when they’re researching the buy. And most likely, they’re very high in the consideration phase, just checking out the competitive landscape. This varies with the type of purchase, but usually the search sweet spot is for a product where there is little familiarity, where there is a significant amount of consumer research and consideration, and where there is a lead time of a month or two before the purchase. This is not true all the time, but it is true about… well, look at that… 70 percent of the time!

Driving consumers to a hard purchase conversion and leaving them without another option is not going to be a successful online tactic for the majority of your consumers. We have to understand the mindset of the consumer when they’re likely to use a search engine. If you always aim for the easy conversion, or the low hanging fruit, you’re probably missing 70 percent or more of your market. Take some time to gain a better understanding of the consumer and what they’re looking for. Adjust your search marketing strategies accordingly. Extend your reach beyond the low hanging fruit.

Seventy percent by luck, 30 percent by design Recently, JupiterMedia released findings of an extensive survey with search marketers. In it, they found that only about 25 percent (close enough to 30 for me) of the respondents actively used landing pages and other on-site tactics to increase conversion rates.

The majority of a search marketer’s time is spent in trying to influence position on the search engine results page. This is true whether you’re working on the sponsored side or the organic one. As marketers try to squeeze more return from their marketing investment, there are three points at which they can influence the ROI equation.

They can reduce the investment by intensive bid management or tapping into the organic potential of search. They can increase impressions and click-throughs by extending the keyword basket or improving their position on the page. And finally, they can increase the conversion rate on the site by making sure the search visitor finds what they were looking for and that an appropriate conversion path is present.

It’s the last of these three that offers the marketer the greatest degree of control, yet it’s the one most often overlooked. Usually, we have complete control over what happens on our own site. But often, we have never really asked our visitors what they’re looking for. We haven’t tapped into the existing (and extensive) body of knowledge on usability design when it comes to Web sites. This is one area that could have huge payoff not just in search, but also in all areas of online marketing.

Fibonacci redux For each of the three examples of the 70/30 Rule I’ve given, I know others exist. And I’m not sure that it’s wrong that marketers have previously gone for the obvious wins in search. But I worry about the lack of motivation to go after the wins that require more work.

We can’t move forward as an industry until we start doing the research required to better understand the 70 percent of the market we’re missing. The big winners in business have never been the companies that go for the easy wins. They’re the ones that figure out how to pick the fruit that’s just out of their competition’s reach.

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