Tales of Pogo Sticks, Bouncy SERPs and Sticky Pages

First published September 7, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Much of what little strategy exists in search marketing is aimed towards the first click from a results page (also called a SERP). The position, the messaging and the landing page experience all assume that we’ve captured that all-important first click. But what about the subsequent clicks? In the search business, this is called pogo sticking, the bouncing back and forth from the search page, and clicking on a number of sites in sequence in an effort to find what we’re looking for.

Desperately Seeking Pogo Stats

We know pogo sticking exists, but when I tried to quantify how common it was, I quickly ran into a lot of closed doors. I tried all the major engines and was told that they don’t divulge that type of information, even in aggregate form. I also tried the monitoring services (comScore, Nielsen, Hitwise) but again came up empty.

So, failing anything more quantitative, we had to turn to our own limited data set. The stats below come from the combination of eye-tracking sessions, where we’ve been able to look for pogo sticking. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it’s the best we’ve got, so I present it with a whackload of caveats.

We saw pogo sticking occur in 49 percent of the sessions we looked at. We suspect the occurrence of this type of behavior would be even higher in real-world settings. So at least one out of every two searches results in a return visit to the results page. In our sessions, 21.5 percent of them results in two clicks from the SERP, 10.4 percent in three clicks, 4.9 percent in four clicks, and 5.5 percent in five clicks. The remainder (6.8 percent) clicked six times or more.

Google has the fewest pogo sticking sessions, with only 36.4 percent of them resulting in a round trip to the SERP. MSN had the highest percentage, with 59.4 percent. Even if you question the numbers (and you have every right to do so) I believe it’s a pretty safe bet that pogo sticking is a pretty common occurrence.

The Power of the Pogo

Why is this important? Because a return visit looks significantly different than the first visit. And if it happens at least half the time, it’s a factor we’d do well to consider as we lay down our search strategies.

I strongly recommend that all search strategies take into consideration the mind-set of your target customer, within the context of what else appears on the page. This exercise can help you forecast the receptiveness of your target to your position on the page, the messaging you present, and the landing page experience you provide.

Let’s walk through a typical scenario. Our target customer searches for “hybrid SUV’s.” Because we’ve done our market segmentation homework, we know our target is early in the buying cycle, and is looking for alternatives for fuel-efficient SUVs, building a consideration set.

Eye-tracking studies have shown there’s relatively little variance in the scanning activity with most searchers at the beginning. They tend to start at the top and work their way down, with a strong bias toward the No. 1 organic spot. Therefore, in this scenario, we have to look at how enticing these top listings are. In walking through this on a search engine, GM and Lexus had purchased the top sponsored spots, where the majority of searchers start their scanning. The first organic spot belongs to the site hybridcars.com, a comparison of available hybrid SUVs. Given our target and his intent, it’s very likely that this site will capture the majority of first clicks from the page.

Beyond the First Click

If we’re playing in this real estate, we have to look beyond the first click to what might happen on the second and subsequent clicks. Scan patterns spread around more evenly on the page on return visits, without the very strong upper-left bias that tends to create the so-called “Golden Triangle” (so-called because we called it that). People tend to fixate on where the last listing clicked, and then can head out in multiple directions from there, either continuing down the listings, skipping up to take another look at the top sponsored, or even a quick glance across to the side sponsored ads. Whereever they choose, their interactions will now be colored by what happened in that first click.

Our strategy now has to account for the influence of that likely first click. We have to know how it will alter or reinforce the intent of our user. We also need to know how sticky the landing page behind that first click is. Is it the type of page that will hold him, and possibly send him off in another direction, or is it a quick bounce back to the SERP because it isn’t well aligned to our target’s intent? Does it reinforce our brand, or our competitor’s? What appears above the fold, and what appears below the fold? Again, we know from eye- tracking studies that this is the critical divide of the page in terms of scanning activity.

When one realizes the impact of pogo sticking, it suddenly means that our search strategy doesn’t play out in a vacuum. It’s intimately dependent on what else appears on the results page, and the most likely paths our target will take from that page. It increases the complexity of our strategy exponentially. The only way to successfully navigate it is to have a clear view of the intent of our target. Sure, it makes search marketing more difficult, but it also makes it infinitely more interesting!

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