How Much Would You Pay for this Unclicked Search Ad?

First published May 29, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

As David Berkowitz mentioned a few columns back, comScore CEO Gian Fulgoni pondered the implications of the fact that 95% of Google’s search advertising inventory never gets clicked. All those millions and millions of impressions get thrown out there, just to fade away as a non event as soon as one leaves the results page. Our own research, which Fulgoni refered to, shows that presence at the top of the page does have an impact on brand awareness and propensity to buy. So, logically, even if a link is not clicked, there must be value there. Fulgoni wondered if perhaps Google was leaving significant amounts of money on the table with their cost per click model.

David looked at the implications of Fulgoni’s musings from a business model. I, staying on more familiar ground, would like to explore this from the user’s view. Ironically, although Fulgoni used our research to prove his point, I’m not so sure there is a latent brand impact from search if a link remains unclicked. Let me explain why.
Will You Remember Me?

There’s a distinct divide between the impact realized from interaction with the search results page and interaction after the click-through, on the Web site. And the difference lies in how the interactions get loaded into our brains. When the spotlight of attention is turned on, things go directly into the executive function mode of our brains, which is commonly called working memory. This is like a white board, where we gather the details needed to make decisions and store them. There are two limiting factors to working memory, capacity and duration. We can only load so much on this whiteboard, and it will remain only as long as we’re actively using it. After that, the board gets wiped clean, ready for the next decision.

When we’re using working memory, we’re fully engaging our rational loop. Things go directly to working memory. Depending on the importance of the information for us in the long term, we’ll either start creating the long-term memory hooks to retain it, or it will be left to be erased from short-term memory. Think of when you look up a phone number. Obviously, there is lots of other information on the page or Web site where you go, but you’re focused on just the number you need. You find the number and begin repeating it to yourself, effectively beginning the transition from short-term to long-term memory. The rest of the information you saw on the page, even if you were actively focused on it during the task, is almost mmediately wiped from your memory.

The memory hooks you create will depend on how long you need the number, and how often you use it. If this is going to be an oft-used piece of information, it will get stored for the long run in your semantic memory. If not, it will eventually wither away in memory purgatory, caught between the transience of short term and the enduring stability of long term.

Focus of Attention

When we interact with a search engine, our working memory is in high gear. We are very much focused on the task at hand, “berry picking” our way through the information presented on the search page. In split seconds, we filter our way through incredible amounts of information, seeking the cues of relevancy, or information scent, required to indicate which result best matches our intent. We don’t spend a lot of time qualifying the quality of the match. Click-throughs are low-risk investments. If we click through on a listing and it doesn’t provide what we’re looking for, we can easily click back to the results page and try another one. So we don’t spend a lot of time considering the results. We scan, filter and click. There’s little opportunity for unclicked messaging to pass beyond working memory and stick.

Fulgoni’s theory has one other thing working against it. Much brand impact is acquired implicitly. Even when we’re not focused on acquiring information, images, sounds and messaging are filtering into our brains at a subconscious level, there to help create our brand perceptions. But all interaction with the search results page is explicit, a very focused acquisition of information. Everything passes through executive function and working memory. There is no opportunity for brand messaging to sneak past the guard and find a nook or cranny of our cortex to lodge itself in. We’re diligently wiping the slate clean.

Fulgoni’s theory is interesting, but I’m not sure it holds up when we look at the neurobiology involved in the process. There is a tremendous branding opportunity in search, but unfortunately, it doesn’t lie in the unclicked ad. But more on that next column, when we look at the interaction on the search page, and what happens after the click-through.

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