Blink, Thin Slicing and the Art of Search

First published June 9, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he examines how we make decisions in a split second, and how these intuitive decisions are often more valid than ones we labor over for months.

While Gladwell’s book examines how intuitive decisions are made in a number of situations, it’s fascinating to apply his insights to how we search.

After asking thousands of people to think about they search (through all our research, we’re probably closing in on 3000 now), only one thing has been consistent in our findings. People don’t really know. In some cases, we think we know–but our interactions happen so quickly with the search results page and at such a subconscious level that we’re often at a loss to explain how we chose the results we did. The fact is, the minute we ask people to slow down and start examining their search interaction, that interaction changes and we don’t get a true picture.

When we interact online, we make decisions in split seconds. The rapid-fire assimilation of information and clicking on navigation options is aided by the fact that we can navigate the Web with relatively little risk. If we follow a false lead and end up on a site that doesn’t offer what we’re looking for, the back button is one click away. If only life came with a back button. Wouldn’t it be nice to back out of our mistakes in real life as easily as we can online?

As we navigate, we click merrily along, in a headlong rush to get to our online destination. Only when we perceive that there is increased risk to ourselves–which could present itself as committing some of our personal information, making a purchase, or downloading a file–do we stop and deliberate.

In searching, none of the above risk threats are there. As long as we’re on our favorite search engine, we can’t commit to anything that can’t be corrected with a couple of clicks on the back button.

In our study, we found that people spend an average of 6.4 seconds on a search results page before clicking on a link, and in that time scan an average of 3.9 results. In these few seconds, we assimilate an average of 140 words. Included in those words are between 35 to 60 factors and details we have to consider to make a decision. Yet we take just a few seconds to do this. This is what Mr. Gladwell calls Thin Slicing.

Thin Slicing is the ability to take huge amounts of information and focus in on just what’s important. Then we take these few key pieces of information and make our decision on a subconscious, intuitive level. We don’t know how we made the decision, and if we stop to examine it, we can’t explain the steps we went through. But the decision was made, and in a surprising number of instances, it proves to be the right one. In fact, by trying to take a more logical approach, we often paralyze our decision-making ability.

For the majority of us, the decisions we make while we are on a search results page are an example of thin slicing. Both through cognitive assimilation (actively reading titles and descriptions) and by finding matches to our semantic maps–the group of words that make up the concept we’re search for–through what we see in the listings with our peripheral vision, most of us make decisions on what to click on in seconds.

There are a few deliberate searchers out there who take the time to actively read each title and description before making their decision, but they are few and far between.

What’s the application for search marketing? Understand that placement of keyphrases and words that can catch attention are vital in this split-second environment. This is why position is important. With decisions made in seconds, not a lot of screen real estate is scanned. And every decision is made by weighing the factors in those few listings that were scanned.

So don’t create your search marketing strategies in a vacuum. Explore the competitive environment defined by the search listings for your prime keyphrases. See who else you share the space with, where they’re positioned relative to you, and how you can compete with them for grabbing the attention of your prospective customer. Remember, you can gain them or lose them in the blink of an eye!

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