First published October 30, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Last week, I walked through an interaction with the search page step by step and looked cognitive engagement with the page. To understand the nature of branding on the search page, you first have to understand how we interact with brand messaging on the page.
Quick to Click
We left off last week as we picked up enough information scent on the page to encourage us to click on the listing. It’s important to understand that this is not a rigorous appraisal of relevance. The amount of deliberation is directly related to the amount of risk involved in a click through, determined by as much time will we have to invest should we click through. The amount of time we invest in deliberation on the search page is telling. In most search interactions we’ve recorded in our lab, average time to first click is around 10 to 12 seconds, during which most people scan 4 to 5 listings. That amounts to 2 to 3 seconds per listing. Once the click-through happens, deliberation is almost as limited on the landing page; 10 to 14 seconds is spent determining if information scent is sufficiently present to stick with the page. If not, we’re clicking the back button and heading back to the results page.
I tally up these times to make a point: we don’t spend a lot of time interacting with search messages. This is spot scanning at best, not a thorough assessment. We don’t read listings, we glance at words. When enough hits register to establish relevancy matches with the goal of our search, based on the words we used in the query and those that remain locked up in our prefrontal cortex, we click.
Let’s go back to the foraging analogy, because it helps establish the mindset we’re dealing with. You’re looking for oranges and walk into a mall with 20 different storefronts opening off the main entrance. Each storefront has signage in front with a brief description of the items they carry. Most appear to offer oranges. However, you don’t want to spend the rest of your day going from store to store looking for the perfect bag of oranges. So, you’re going to use the clues you pick up on the store signs to pick your best bet. A produce store is a better match than a convenience store, which is a better match than a clothing store which for some reason says oranges on their sign (perhaps it’s the color of their Fall line). Your goal is to pick up the best oranges in the least amount of time. The process you would use to narrow your store selection is similar to the one you use every day with a search engine.
Now, let’s look at the part brand plays in this same analogy. You’re looking for oranges, but you’re using related concepts to help you narrow down your choice. A store that appears to offer a variety of fruits has stronger scent. A store that has a sale on oranges today might offer even stronger scent. And a store that offers Sunkist oranges might offer even stronger scent, if you happen to like the Sunkist brand.
Brand Connections, Not Emotions
That’s the role brand plays on the search results page. It’s a critical role, but it’s significantly different than the brand-building role many are trying to carve out for search. Search doesn’t build brand, search connects people to brands at just the right time.
Brands work because they represent something. In fact, studies show that successful brands actually act as a proxy for reward in the brain. They fire the same dopamine-producing neurons in the reward center that the actual product would, if you possessed it. The brain transfers the pleasure of the product to the brand, where it acts as a convenient label. If you have a favorable opinion of a brand and you see that brand in the search results, your working memory pulls that brand belief out of storage and brings it into focus in the prefrontal cortex.
But, as we’ve learned, brands become powerful influencers if they’re tagged with the power of emotion. That’s classic brand-building. As I’ve gone over at length in this series, there are a number of ways those brand beliefs can be built, including personal experience, the opinions of others and yes, even advertising. But I stand by my belief that emotional brand-building doesn’t happen on the search page. The nature of the interaction simply isn’t conducive to it. This does nothing to negate the importance of brand on the search page, as I’ll talk about in future columns. In fact, the appearance of brand on the results page is critical. But an emotional brand bonding moment it’s not.
So, with my own company responsible for a number of search brand lift studies, am I refuting my own evidence? Not at all. It just requires a clearer definition of brand lift and a little knowledge of the ways we measure it. I’ll deal with both next week.