Evolved Search Behaviors: Take Aways for Marketers

In the last two columns, I first looked at the origins of the original Golden Triangle, and then looked at how search behaviors have evolved in the last 9 years, according to a new eye tracking study from Mediative. In today’s column, I’ll try to pick out a few “so whats” for search marketers.

It’s not about Location, It’s About Intent

In 2005, search marketing as all about location. It was about grabbing a part of the Golden Triangle, and the higher, the better. The delta between scanning and clicks from the first organic result to the second was dramatic – by a factor of 2 to 1! Similar differences were seen in the top paid results. It’s as if, given the number of options available on the page (usually between 12 and 18, depending on the number of ads showing) searchers used position as a quick and dirty way to filter results, reasoning that the higher the result, the better match it would be to their intent.

In 2014, however, it’s a very different story. Because the first scan is now to find the most appropriate chunk, the importance of being high on the page is significantly lessened. Also, once the second step of scanning has begun, within a results chunk, there seems to be more vertical scanning within the chunk and less lateral scanning. Mediative found that in some instances, it was the third or fourth listing in a chunk that attracted the most attention, depending on content, format and user intent. For example, in the heat map shown below, the third organic result actually got as many clicks as the first, capturing 26% of all the clicks on the page and 15% of the time spent on page. The reason could be because it was the only listing that had the Google Ratings Rich Snippet because of the proper use of structured data mark up. In this case, the information scent that promised user reviews was a strong match with user intent, but you would only know this if you knew what that intent was.

Google-Ford-Fiesta

This change in user search scanning strategies makes it more important than ever to understand the most common user intents that would make them turn to a search engine. What will be the decision steps they go through and at which of those steps might they turn to a search engine? Would it be to discover a solution to an identified need, to find out more about a known solution, to help build a consideration set for direct comparisons, to look for one specific piece of information (ie a price) or to navigate to one particular destination, perhaps to order online? If you know why your prospects might use search, you’ll have a much better idea of what you need to do with your content to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time with the right content.  Nothing shows this clearer than the following comparison of heat maps. The one on the left was the heat map produced when searchers were given a scenario that required them to gather information. The one on the right resulted from a scenario where searchers had to find a site to navigate to. You can see the dramatic difference in scanning behaviors.

Intent-compared-2

If search used to be about location, location, location, it’s now about intent, intent, intent.

Organic Optimization Matters More than Ever!

Search marketers have been saying that organic optimization has been dying for at least two decades now, ever since I got into this industry. Guess what? Not only is organic optimization not dead, it’s now more important than ever! In Enquiro’s original 2005 study, the top two sponsored ads captured 14.1% of all clicks. In Mediative’s 2014 follow up, the number really didn’t change that much, edging up to 14.5% What did change was the relevance of the rest of the listings on the page. In 2005, all the organic results combined captured 56.7% of the clicks. That left about 29% of the users either going to the second page of results, launching a new search or clicking on one of the side sponsored ads (this only accounted for small fraction of the clicks). In 2014, the organic results, including all the different category “chunks,” captured 74.6% of the remaining clicks. This leaves only 11% either clicking on the side ads (again, a tiny percentage) or either going to the second page or launching a new search. That means that Google has upped their first page success rate to an impressive 90%.

First of all, that means you really need to break onto the first page of results to gain any visibility at all. If you can’t do it organically, make sure you pay for presence. But secondly, it means that of all the clicks on the page, some type of organic result is capturing 84% of them. The trick is to know which type of organic result will capture the click – and to do that you need to know the user’s intent (see above). But you also need to optimize across your entire content portfolio. With my own blog, two of the biggest traffic referrers happen to be image searches.

Left Gets to Lead

The Left side of the results page has always been important but the evolution of scanning behaviors now makes it vital. The heat map below shows just how important it is to seed the left hand of results with information scent.

Googlelefthand

Last week, I talked about how the categorization of results had caused us to adopt a two stage scanning strategy, the first to determine which “chunks” of result categories are the best match to intent, and the second to evaluated the listings in the most relevant chunks. The vertical scan down the left hand of the page is where we decide which “chunks” of results are the most promising. And, in the second scan, because of the improved relevancy, we often make the decision to click without a lot of horizontal scanning to qualify our choice. Remember, we’re only spending a little over a second scanning the result before we click. This is just enough to pick up the barest whiffs of information scent, and almost all of the scent comes from the left side of the listing. Look at the three choices above that captured the majority of scanning and clicks. The search was for “home decor store toronto.” The first popular result was a local result for the well known brand Crate and Barrel. This reinforces how important brands can be if they show up on the left side of the result set. The second popular result was a website listing for another well known brand – The Pottery Barn. The third was a link to Yelp – a directory site that offered a choice of options. In all cases, the scent found in the far left of the result was enough to capture a click. There was almost no lateral scanning to the right. When crafting titles, snippets and metadata, make sure you stack information scent to the left.

In the end, there are no magic bullets from this latest glimpse into search behaviors. It still comes down to the five foundational planks that have always underpinned good search marketing:

  1. Understand your user’s intent
  2. Provide a rich portfolio of content and functionality aligned with those intents
  3. Ensure your content appears at or near the top of search results, either through organic optimization or well run search campaigns
  4. Provide relevant information scent to capture clicks
  5. Make sure you deliver on what you promise post-click

Sure, the game is a little more complex than it was 9 years ago, but the rules haven’t changed.

Search: The Boon or Bane of B2B Marketers

First published February 21, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Optify recently released its 2012 B2B marketing Benchmark Report. While reading the executive summary, two apparently conflicting points jumped out at me: “Google is the single most important referring domain to B2B websites, responsible for over 36% of all visits.”

And: “Paid search usage showed a constant decline among B2B marketers in 2012. Over 10% of companies in the report discontinued their paid search campaigns during 2012.”

OK, what gives? How can search be the single most important referrer of traffic, yet fail so miserably as a marketing channel that many B2B marketers have thrown in the towel?

The fact is, B2B search is a dramatically different beast, and many of the unique nuances that come with it are likely to lead to the apparent paradox that the Optify study unearthed. Here are some possible reasons for the anomaly:

B2B search has a really, really long tail. Many B2B marketers are dealing with a huge variety of SKUs, with a broader distribution of traffic across keywords than is typical in most consumer categories. This makes keyword discovery a monumental task. But more than this, the revenue per managed keyword (assuming you can accurately measure revenue — more on this below) is quite often very small. This creates a cost-of-campaign management issue.

When the “long tail” of search was first introduced, many search marketers embraced it as a cost-effective way to manage campaigns. The assumption was that long-tail queries, being quite specific, would yield higher ROI than shorter, more generic queries. And while the traffic (and subsequent revenue) per keyword would be very small, cumulatively a long-tail campaign could deliver impressive returns.

This is true, up to a point. But long-tail campaigns require significant administrative overhead. A query that gets one search a month requires as much set-up as one that gets 1,500 searches a month. Even if you use broad match, you’re constantly tweaking your negative match list to filter out the low-value traffic.

While a long-tail approach seems like a good idea in theory, in practice most marketers end up culling most of the long-tail keywords from the campaign because the returns just aren’t worth the ongoing effort.  This would not bode well for B2B marketers considering search as a channel.

A B2B search vocabulary is difficult to define. Compounding the long-tail problem is the issue that many B2B vendors sell complex products or services. With complexity comes ambiguity in language. It’s hard to pin many B2B products down to an obvious search phrase you can be sure searchers would use. Often, many B2B prospects only know they have a problem, not what the possible solution might be called. This makes it very difficult to create an effective search campaign. There is a lot of trial and error involved.

And, because prospects aren’t searching for a familiar product from vendors they know, it becomes even more difficult to create a compelling search ad that attracts its fair share of searches and subsequent conversions. In a marketing channel that depends on words to interpret buying intent, ill-defined vocabularies can make a marketer’s job exponentially more difficult.

B2B ROI has to be measured differently. Finally, let’s say you get past the first two obstacles. Ultimately, search campaigns live and die on their effectiveness. And this requires a comprehensive approach to performance measurement. As any B2B marketer will tell you, this is much easier said than done. B2B markets tend to be more circuitous than consumer markets, winding their way through several stops in an extended value change. This makes end-to-end tracking extremely difficult.  And if value isn’t easily measured, search campaigns can’t prove their value. This makes them likely candidates for an unceremonious axing.

So if That’s the Bad News, What’s the Good?

If the deck is stacked so fully against search in the B2B world, why was Google the primary referrer of traffic in the Optify study? Well, search for B2B can be tremendously effective; it’s just hard to predict. This makes B2B a prime candidate for a broad-based SEO effort. Content creation creates a rich bed of long-tail fodder that search spiders love. Organic best practices combined with a dedication to thought leadership can create content that intercepts those prospects looking for a solution to their identified pains, even before they know what they’re looking for.

In the case of B2B, especially in complex, nascent markets, I generally recommend leading with SEO and content development. Then, monitor search traffic and let that help inform your subsequent PPC efforts. It may turn out that paid search isn’t a major play for your market. The B2B Beast can be tamed by search; it just takes a different approach.

Climbing the Slippery Slopes of Mount White Hat

First published August 30, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

On Monday of this week, fellow Search Insider Ryan DeShazer bravely threw his hat back in the ring regarding this question: Is Google better or worse off because of SEO?

DeShazer confessed to being vilified after a previous column indicated that Google owed us something. I admit I have a column penned but never submitted that Ryan could have added to the “vilify” side of that particular tally. But in his Monday column, Ryan touches on a very relevant point: “What is the thin line between White Hat and Black Hat SEO?” For as long as I’ve been in this industry (which is pushing 17 years now) I’ve heard that same debate. I’ve been at conference sessions where white hats and black hats went head to head on the question. It’s one of those discussions that most sane people in the world could care less about, but we in the search biz can’t seem to let go.

Ryan stirs the pot again by indicating that Google may be working on an SEO “Penalty Box”: a temporary holding pen for sites that are using “rank modifying spammers” where results will fluctuate more than in the standard index. The high degree of flux should lead to further modifications by the “spammers” that will help Google identify them and theoretically penalize them. DeShazer’s concern is the use of the word “spammers” in the wording of the patent application, which seems to include any “webmasters who attempt to modify their search engine ranking.”

I personally think it’s dangerous to try to apply wording used in a patent application (the source for this speculation) arbitrarily against what will become a business practice. Wording in a patent is intended to help convey the concept of the intellectual property as quickly and concisely as possible to a patent review bureaucrat. The wording deals in concepts that are (ironically) pretty black and white. It has little to no relationship to how that IP will be used in the real world, which tends to be colored in various shades of gray. But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Alan Perkins, an SEO I would call vociferously “white hat,” some years ago came up with what I believe is the quintessential difference here. Black hats optimize for a search engine. White hats optimize for humans.  When I make site recommendations, they are to help people find better content faster and act on it. I believe, along with Perkins, that this approach will also do good things for your search visibility.

But that also runs the danger of being an oversimplification. The picture is muddied by clients who measure our success as SEO agencies by their position relative to their competitors on a keyword-by-keyword level. This is the bed the SEO industry has built for itself, and now we’re forced to sleep in it. I’m as guilty as the next guy of cranking out competitive ranking reports, which have conditioned this behavior over the past decade and a half.

The big problem, and one continually pointed out by vocal grey/black hats, is that you can’t keep up with competition who are using methods more black than white by staying with white-hat tactics alone. The fact is, black hat works, for a while. And if I’m the snow-white SEO practitioner whose clients are repeatedly trounced by those using a black hat consultant, I’d better expect some client churn. Ethics and profitably don’t always go together in this industry.

To be honest, over the past five years, I’ve largely stopped worrying about the whole white hat/black hat thing. We’ve lost some clients because we weren’t aggressive enough, but the ones who stayed were largely untouched by the string of recent Google updates targeting spammers. Most benefited from the house cleaning of the index. I’ve also spent the last five years focused a lot more on people and good experiences than on algorithms and link juice, or whatever the SEO flavor du jour is.

I think Alan Perkins nailed it way back in 2007. Optimize for humans. Aim for the long haul. And try to be ethical. Follow those principles, and I find it hard to imagine that Google would ever tag you with the label of “spammer.”

The Virtuous Cycle of SEO

First published August 9, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Virtuous cycles are anomalies. They fight the universal law of entropy, and for that reason alone, they are worth investigation. Rather than a gradual slide toward dissipation and equilibrium, virtuous cycles build upon themselves, yielding self-sustaining returns cycle after cycle.

In marketing, there are not a lot of virtuous cycles. Most marketing efforts need to be constantly fueled by a steady stream of dollars. The minute the budget tap is closed, so is the marketing program. But there are a few, and SEO is one of them, if done correctly. Let’s take a quick look at the elements required to build a truly virtuous cycle.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Positive feedback is the engine of a virtuous cycle. It’s what drives sustainable growth. Think of it as the compound interest paid on your marketing efforts.

In an SEO program, positive feedback comes in the form of the algorithmic love shown to you by the search engines, dragging in an ever-increasing number of eyeballs. These eyeballs also contribute to the feedback loop, creating new links, new user-generated content, new activity, all of which continue to drive rankings, up, which drives new eyeballs, which… well, you get the idea. And the cycle continues.

Investment Required

Virtuous cycles require an upfront investment, and it’s usually a significant one. You can’t collect compound interest on a zero balance. Cycles don’t start from scratch.

In SEO, the investments required come in the form of content and an engaging user experience. You have to give a user a reason to come, to engage and to evangelize to really leverage the benefits of SEO. You can evaluate if you have the makings of a virtuous cycle by asking yourself the following questions:

–      What are my users coming for?

–      What will they do?

–      How can they engage?

–      Why will they care?

–      Will their expectations be exceeded?

If you have a less than satisfactory answer to any of these questions, you don’t have what it takes to create a virtuous cycle.

Appealing to Human Nature

If your cycle depends on human behavior, as most do, you have to appeal to one of the basic tenets of human nature. As complicated as we can be, we are generally driven by a surprisingly small number of basic needs. Harvard professors Nitin Nohria and Paul Lawrence, in their book “Driven,” identified four fundamental human drives: We need to acquire, to learn, to bond and to defend. Examine any virtuous cycle, and you’ll always find at least one of these drives at the heart of it.

Ask yourself how your online presence contributes to these drives. Remember, for a cycle to begin, positive feedback is required. And positive feedback depends on engagement from your visitors.

Universally Beneficial

Finally, a virtuous cycle needs to benefit all parties in order for it to be sustainable. It needs to be a win/win/win. If, somewhere along the line, someone gets screwed, the cycle will ultimately fall apart.

In SEO, this means you must play along with the algorithm rather than try to beat it. Short-term thinking and virtuous cycles never go well together. One algorithmic update to crack down on a SEO loophole will shut down your cycle in a heartbeat. But if you work with a search engine to make a great user experience discoverable, the cycle will begin.

Search and the Age of “Usefulness”

First published April 19, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over the recent changes to Google’s algorithm and what it means for the SEO industry. This is not the first time the death knell has been rung for SEO. It seems to have more lives than your average barnyard cat. But there’s no doubt that Google’s recent changes throws a rather large wrench in the industry as a whole. In my view, that’s a good thing.

First of all, from the perspective of the user, Google’s changes mark an evolution of search beyond a tool used to search for information to one used by us to do the things we want to do. It’s moving from using relevance as the sole measure of success to incorporating usefulness.

The algorithm is changing to keep pace with the changes in the Web as a whole. No longer is it just the world’s biggest repository of text-based information; it’s now a living, interactive, functional network of apps, data and information, extending our capabilities through a variety of connected devices.

Google had to introduce these back-end changes. Not to do so would have guaranteed the company would have soon become irrelevant in the online world.

As Google succeeds in consistently interpreting more and more signals of user intent, it can become more confident in presenting a differentiated user experience. It can serve a different type of results set to a query that’s obviously initiated by someone looking for information than it does to the user who’s looking to do something online.

We’ve been talking about the death of the monolithic set of search results for years now. In truth, it never died; it just faded away, pixel by pixel. The change has been gradual, but for the first time in several years of observing search, I can truthfully say that my search experience (whether on Google, Bing or the other competitors) looks significantly different today than it did three years ago.

As search changes, so do the expectations of users. And that affects the “use case” of search. In its previous incarnation, we accepted that search was one of a number of necessary intermediate steps between our intent and our ultimate action. If we wanted to do something, we accepted the fact that we would search for information, find the information, evaluate the information and then, eventually, take the information and do something with it. The limitations of the Web forced us to take several steps to get us where we wanted to go.

But now, as we can do more of what we want to online, the steps are being eliminated. Information and functionality are often seamlessly integrated in a single destination. So we have less patience with seemingly superfluous steps between us and our destination. That includes search.

Soon, we will no longer be content with considering the search results page as a sort of index to online content. We will want the functionality we know exists served to us via the shortest possible path. We see this beginning as answers to common information requests are pushed to the top of the search results page.

What this does, in terms of user experience, is make the transition from search page to destination more critical than ever. As long as search was a reference index, the user expected to bounce back and forth between potential destinations, deciding which was the best match. But as search gets better at unearthing useful destinations, our “post-click” expectations will rise accordingly.  Whatever lies on the other side of that search click better be good. The changes in Google’s algorithm are the first step (of several yet to come) to ensure that it is.

What this does for SEO specialists is to suddenly push them toward considering a much bigger picture than they previously had to worry about. They have to think in terms of a search user’s unique intent and expectations. They have to understand the importance of the transition from a search page to a landing page and the functionality that has to offer. And, most of all, they have to counsel their clients on the increasing importance of “usefulness” — and how potential customers will use online to seek and connect to that usefulness.  If the SEO community can transition to that role, there will always be a need for them.

The SEO industry and the Google search quality team have been playing a game of cat and mouse for several years now. It’s been more “hacking” than “marketing” as SEO practitioners prod for loopholes in the Google algorithm. All too often, a top ranking was the end goal, with no thought to what that actually meant for true connections with prospects.

In my mind, if that changes, it’s perhaps the best thing to ever happen in the SEO business.

Reinventing AIDA

First published April 5, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, my column was about how branding differs between search and more traditional brand channels like TV and print. It came from a recent client conversation I had. Rob Schmults from Intent Media added a well-thought-out, on-the-mark comment that deserves a follow-up. There are three points in particular I want to dive deeper into.

“ I think part of the problem in attempting to do so is that branding is all too often an end in and of itself rather than a means.”

Absolutely. Most sales and marketing happens in dozens of disconnected siloes, with little thought about how the actions of one silo affect all the others. Each silo measures progress by its own metric and set its own agenda. The problem is that all these different initiatives are aimed at the same target, but there is little thought as to how each initiative can impact the prospect.

For the past year, I’ve been thinking about how to approach marketing by starting first with creating a common understanding of the buyer’s motivations and behaviors, and then mapping a decision landscape so we can begin to understand the path the buyer takes through it. Much of my writing over the past two years has explored various aspects of this landscape: things like the role of risk and reward, and how they affect the emotions drive our buying decisions.

If branding becomes disconnected and “an end in and of itself,” it starts to lose touch with the chain of “means” that translates brand awareness into action. I saw a particularly acute example of this in a recent meeting: a brand agency presented research showing each point of movement in its unaided brand awareness metric translated into X of additional revenue. I didn’t dispute the finding, as I believed it to be true. What was missing was the long chain of interdependent “means” taking us from there to here. It was like saying that each inch of rain translated into X increase of revenue at the local farmer’s market. We’re jumping from “A” to “Z” without worrying about the 24 intervening letters.

“SEM is clearly a means — it’s a step to driving a conversion event (typically a sale).”

As I mentioned last week, presence on the search page is very often a critical intermediate step between the lofty heights of brand-building and the nitty-gritty of bringing cash in the door. In fact, if you take the time to understand how search is typically used in the purchase process with your typical buyer, it typically falls into the “no-brainer” category, because the prospect has intent and is completely open to being persuaded. Which brings me to Rob’s next point:

“Branding has value, so the war Gordon describes doesn’t have to end with total victory and branding’s extinction.”

As effective as search is, it’s a channel with built-in limitations, including available inventory. If there is no awareness, there is no inventory. People can’t search for something they don’t know exists (at least, not yet). Branding creates awareness, which, if the dots are connected properly, eventually turns into intent. And when intent is present, search is very effective at converting that intent into action. The chain then is Awareness – Intent – Action, which is a variation on the venerable AIDA branding model: Attention – Interest – Desire – Action. If you combine the two you end up with Awareness – Interest – Desire – Intent – Action, or AIDIA. You need branding at the front end, to create awareness, spark interest and create desire. You need search at the back end to allow prospects to act on their intent and discover how to take action.

It’s interesting to note that the original AIDA model jumped all the way from desire to action without much explanation on how to get there. Given that two of the steps –“interest” and “desire” — seem pretty similar, it’s odd that there is such a huge chasm between the domain of branding and the ultimate transaction itself. The AIDA model was definitely biased towards the front end of the marketing process.

I think what digital has done, especially through search, is to provide much more granularity and clarity on the many steps you can take to get from desire to action. But, as Mr. Schmults reminds us, none of these steps is “an end unto itself.” They’re part of a journey. They depend on each other. And each is passed through by your prospects as they travel down the path of purchase.

To come full circle, that was my original point. I’m not calling for the abolition of branding. I’m just asking that we take the time to understand the journey our customers take, and be there at each step.

 

There is No Floor on Search Spending

First published March 29, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I was asked an interesting question by a client the other day:  “What is the minimum spending threshold for paid search? Below what level does it not make sense to invest anything?”

A little context is in order here. This same client had been through a vigorous round of budget discussions, where the digital and branding teams were fighting for the same bucket of dollars. They were trying, with almost no success, to compare effectiveness of digital and branding on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The brand team’s tactic was that they couldn’t give up any budget because they were already at minimum spending levels. Even a dollar less would drop them below the level required to hit the reach/frequency minimums dictated by the agency handling the media buys.

The answer, of course, is that there is no minimum when it comes to paid search. Each click you buy generates a potential lead. But the reasoning behind that answer speaks to the unique nature of search, when compared to traditional brand-building channels.

Online Branding is a Different Beast

Search vendors have been trying to prove the brand-building effects of search for years now. I’ve been personally involved in some of the earliest of these studies. And I’m here to tell you, branding is much different in an online environment than it is in the traditional worlds of print and electronic media.

When you use research to create a direct comparison between two different alternatives, you have to control for variables. If you don’t, the results are meaningless. If you’re trying to measure the brand lift of search, you have to use traditional brand awareness metrics — which, as I said, have significant methodological challenges.

The biggest challenge, identified by more sophisticated research approaches such as neuroscanning, is that most market research doesn’t really take into account how the brain works. And it’s here where the brand impact of search really can leave its more traditional counterparts in the dust.

The brain can interact with potential marketing messages in two different modes – a “bottom up” mode or a “top down” mode. The “bottom up” mode is how most traditional advertising works. It interrupts the brain, whatever it’s engaged with, and temporarily sidetracks the brain long enough to hopefully leave a “brand imprint” that will stick in long-term memory. Often, this is done at a subconscious level.

And therein lies the problem with most brand-awareness metrics. By their very nature, they have to engage the conscious brain and suddenly you’ve muddied the mental waters to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to get a true picture of the impression the brand left. Traditional brand impact research is a crapshoot, at best.

It’s this subconscious impact that has created the “minimum buy” hypothesis. If you don’t hit a potential target with enough impressions to make even a slight ding in their mental armor, you have wasted your entire budget. It’s the “Chinese water torture” approach to advertising.

But search engages the brain in a “top down” mode. We’re actively engaged with the task at hand, which means that no interruption is required to implant the brand impression. It’s immediately loaded into working memory, and we’re ready to act on it. That’s why there is no such thing as a minimum search spend. Each click bought has the potential to work, because there are no mental barriers to break down or attention to grab.

Sometimes the Truth Hurts

Ironically, in this particular budget discussion, the effectiveness of search turned out to be its downfall. We didn’t have the same “minimum spend” argument as the branding agency when it came to moving ad dollars from one budget to the other. But, when the dust settled, I took some solace in knowing that while we may have lost the battle, the effectiveness of search will eventually prove triumphant in the war.