Persuasion on the Search Results Page

First published January 3, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Chris Copeland took out 2007 with one last jab at the whole “agencies getting it” thing. Much as I’m tempted to ring in the New Year by continuing to flog this particular horse, I’m going to bow to my more rational side. As Chris and Mike Margolin both rightly pointed out in their responses to my columns, we all have vested interests and biases that will inevitably cause us to see things from our own perspectives. Frankly, the perspective I’m most interested at this point in this debate is the client’s, as this will ultimately be a question the marketplace decides. So, for now, I’ll leave it there.

But Chris did take exception to one particular point that I did want to spill a little more virtual ink over; the idea of whether persuasion happens in search. Probably the cause for the confusion was my original choice of words. Rather than saying we don’t persuade people “in search” I should have said “on the search page.” Let me explain further with a quick reference to the dictionary, in this case, http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/persuadeMerriam-Webster:

Persuade: to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action.

In the definition of persuade, the idea is to move someone from their current belief, position or course of action to a new one. The search results page is not the place to do this. And the reasons why are important to understand for the search marketer.

For quick reference, here’s Chris’s counterargument: Persuasion is at the heart of everything that we do in search — from where we place an ad on a page (Hotchkiss’ golden triangle study) to how we message. The experience we drive to every step of the process is about understanding behavior and how to better optimize for the purpose of connecting consumer intent with advertiser content.
I don’t disagree with Chris in the importance of search in the decision-making process, but I do want to clarify where persuasion happens. What we’re doing on the search results page is not persuading. We’re confirming. We’re validating. In some cases, we’re introducing. But we’re not persuading.

As Chris mentioned, at Enquiro we’ve spent a lot of time mapping out what search interactions look like. And they’re quick. Very quick. About 10 seconds, looking at 4 to 5 results. That’s 2 seconds per listing. In that time, all searchers can do is scan the title and pick up a few words. From that, they make a decision to click or not to click. They’re not reading an argument, entreaty or expostulation. They’re not waiting to be persuaded. They’re making a split-second decision based on the stuff that’s already knocking around in their cortex.

Part of the problem is that we all want to think we’re rational decision-making creatures. When asked in a market research survey, we usually indicate that we think before we click (or buy). This leads to the false assumption that we can be persuaded on the search page, because our rational minds (the part that can be persuaded) are engaged. But it’s just not true. It’s similar to people looking at a shelf of options in the grocery store. In a study (Gerald Zaltman, How Customers Think, p. 124) shoppers exiting a supermarket were asked if they looked at competing brands and compared prices before making their decision. Most said yes. But observation proved differently. They spent only 5 seconds at the category location and 90% only handled their chosen product. This is very similar to responses and actual behavior we’ve seen on search pages.

Now, if someone is in satisficing mode (looking for candidates for a consideration set for further research) you can certainly introduce alternatives for consideration. But the persuasion will happen well downstream from the search results page, not on it.

Am I splitting semantic hairs here? Probably. But if we’re going to get better at search marketing, we have to be obsessed with understanding search behavior and intent. Chris and I are in agreement on that. And that demands a certain precision with the language we use. I was at fault with my original statement, but similarly, I think it’s important to clear up where we can and can’t persuade prospects.

Of course, you may disagree and if so, go ahead, persuade me I’m wrong. I’ll give you 2 seconds and 6 or 7 words. Go!

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