Search Behavior: I Know Just What I’m Looking For

First published July 17, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

We seek information to fill gaps in our existing knowledge. The extent of that current knowledge and how we’ve structured it will play a large part in determining intent. It will help shape our knowledge requirements, our strategies for retrieval and how we will evaluate information scent. As stated in my previous two columns, we’re generally in one of three states when we turn online for information; we know what we’re looking for and where to find it; we know what we’re looking for, but not where to find it; or, we don’t know what we’re looking for or where to find it. Today, I want to explore intent in the first of these states:

We Know What We’re Looking For — and Where to Find It

In the first case, we have a solid idea of the information we’re looking for. Our mental representation has a defined structure and we have a good idea of what the missing piece looks like. For example, we’re looking for a phone number, an address or another missing detail. Because the structure of the information in our minds is almost complete, we have a similarly clear cut idea of where we’re most likely to find the information. We know the right “patch” to look in and where to find the information in the “patch.” In this case, we’re looking for the simplest route from point A to point B.

Googling Google on Google

One of the ongoing anomalies in search is the number of people who go to their favorite engine to search for proper domain names. Some of the most popular queries on every engine are the URLs of their competitors. People search for on Live Search, or on Yahoo. People even search for Google on Google. In looking at the query logs, the only explanation seems to be mass stupidity. But in actual fact, this is foraging playing itself out. We habitually use engines to navigate the Web, so even when we know the Web site, why should our behavior be any different? (This still doesn’t explain the searching for Google on Google. Perhaps stupidity is the right answer here.)

Let’s say you’re looking for the address of the head office for a corporation. You know it will be on their site somewhere, and you have a pretty good idea it will be somewhere within the “about us” section. Rather than go directly to the site and navigate through it, you choose to search for “Company X head office address.” Or, even more likely, you just search for “Company X,” knowing that the official site will come up high in the results.

Pre-Mapping the Search Results Page

In this case, before the results page even loads, you know exactly what you’re looking for and where you’re likely to find it. If you’re searching on Google, it’s likely that you’ll get an extended result in the number one organic spot with Site Links to key parts of the site. This is a great match for your expected information scent. Previous to this introduction by Google, we saw that for navigational searches where we knew the destination we were looking for, there was a higher degree of scanning of the site URL at the bottom of the result listing. Normally there’s not much interaction with this part of the listing.

In this first category, we look at search as a tool, the quickest possible route to the information we know exists. We will quickly zero in on the only relevant information on the results page, the listing for the site we’re looking for. Now, the question for marketers is, what happens when there’s both an organic and sponsored listing for the same site on the same page? Will one cannibalize the other? While we’ve never tested for this specific intent, I can speculate based on what we’ve seen in other research.

Habitual Scanning Behaviors

In one study, we split our group in half, giving one a purchase-type task and the other an information-gathering task. In both cases, we looked at scan patterns in the top sponsored and organic results. We expected to see our information-gathering group relocate their scanning down to the organic results. But this didn’t happen. What we realized is that we scan the search page out of habit. We’re not rationally optimizing our scan path based on intent. We’re following the same pattern we always do, the top to bottom, left to right, F-shaped pattern that’s common across all users. That behavior is conditioned and engrained. It’s been etched at the sub-cortical level of our brain in our basal ganglia and executes subconsciously (see Ann Graybiel’s work  on this for more). But what does change is how we respond to the information scent cues on the page.

Although scanning followed the same pattern for both groups (in fact, the interaction was even higher with sponsored listings for the information-gathering group, likely because they weren’t exactly sure what they were looking for and so were in a more deliberate mode) the click patterns were significantly different. The official site that marked the successful destination in the scenario was in both the top organic and sponsored location. In the commercial task, the clicks split almost 50/50, with half happening in the sponsored listings, and half in the organic listings. But in the information-gathering group, all the clicks happened in the organic listing. Based on our preconceived idea of the information we were seeking, that particular “patch” seemed more promising.

Next column, we’ll look at intent and how it impacts search behavior when we know what we’re looking for, but not where to find it.


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