Summer Stories: How I Became a Researcher

First published August 13, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

About six years ago, I had one of those life-changing moments that set me on a new path. I’ve always been curious. I’ve always had questions, and up to that point in my life, I was usually able to find an answer, with enough perseverance. But in 2003, I had a question that no one seemed able to answer.  It didn’t seem to be an especially difficult question, and I knew someone had the answer. They just weren’t sharing it.

The Unanswerable Question

The question was this: what percentage of searchers click on the organic results and what percentage click on the sponsored ads? Today, that’s not even a question; it’s common knowledge for search marketers. But in 2003, that wasn’t the case. Sponsored search ads were still in their infancy (Overture had just been acquired by Yahoo, and Google’s AdWords was only a couple years old) and no one at either engine was sharing the clickthrough breakdowns between organic and paid.

I reached out to everyone I knew in the industry, but either they didn’t know, or they weren’t willing to go public with the info. My connections into Google and Yahoo were nonexistent at the time. No one, it seemed, had the answer. My curiosity was stymied. And that’s when my revelation happened. If no one had the answer, perhaps I could provide it.

At the time, research was not something Enquiro did. When we wanted to find out an answer, we combed through the forums, just like everyone else. But there seemed to be a noticeable gap in available information. There was plenty of discussion about technical SEO tactics, but no one seemed to be interested in how people actually used search engines.

To me, this was an unforgiveable oversight. If we were using search as a marketing channel, shouldn’t we have some understanding of how our prospects used search?  Off the top of my head, I jotted down a list of several questions I had about how people actually search; questions that appeared to have no readily available answers. It was at that point that I officially became a researcher.

Discovering “Why”

Our first research project proved to set the path we would go down for much of the follow-up: we just looked at how people used search to do things. Our methodology has become much tighter and we now have added eye-tracking and even neuro-scanning to our arsenal, but from the beginning, our research was more focused on “why” than “what.” The first paper was called “Inside the Mind of the Searcher” and it’s still referenced on a regular basis. Frankly, we were surprised with how quickly it was picked up in the industry. Suddenly, we became the experts on search user behavior, a crown I was uncomfortable with at the beginning. Yes, we were exploring new ground, but I always worried about how representative this was to the real world. Did people really do what we said they did, or was it just a research-created anomaly?

Defining the Golden Triangle

For us, the groundbreaking study was our first eye tracking study, done through Eyetools in San Francisco. I had read the Poynter study about how people interacted with online publications and was fascinated. “What if,” I wondered, “we did this with a search engine?” I found a similarly curious cohort in Kevin Lee from DidIt and together with Eyetools we launched the first study, which discovered the now-famous “Golden Triangle.” I remember sitting with Kevin in a speaker prep room at a show whose name escapes me, looking at the very first results of the data. The pattern jumped off the page:

“Look at that!” I said, “It’s a triangle!”

Kevin, always the search optimizer, said, “We need something catchy to call it, something that we can optimize for. The Magic Triangle?”

Because the heat map tends to indicate the most popular areas in a reddish yellow color, the answer was right in front of us. I can’t remember whether it was Kevin or I that first said it, but as soon as we said it, we knew the name would stick: “It’s a gold color… The Golden Triangle?”

Is It Real?

Even with the release of the study and the quick acceptance, I still questioned whether this represented real behavior. It was later that year when I got the confirmation I needed. I had just presented the results during a session at an industry show and was stepping down from the stage. Someone was quietly standing in the corner and came over as I started to head out of the room.

“Hi. I just wanted to let you know. I work with Yahoo on user experience and your heat map looks identical to our internal ones. I actually thought you had somehow got your hands on ours.” The validation was a few years in coming, but very welcome when it finally arrived.

Today, ironically, things have come full circle. I have talked to sales and engineering teams at all the major engines and much of the research they refer to about user behavior comes from Enquiro.

And the answer to my original question has held remarkably consistent in the past 6 years: What percentage of users click on paid ads vs. organic listings? For commercial searches, it’s about 70% organic, 30% paid. Just in case you were curious.

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