Researching the Process of Search

Thanks to a range of business intelligence tools both freely and commercially available, we have countless ways to examine what people are searching for. Historically, what has been harder to document is the process of how people search. A growing body of research sheds light on this subject, and these studies give marketers a roadmap for what they can learn about their customers.

Last week, the latest edition of the WebSideStory Index came out, showing that repeat visitors at retail sites are eight times more likely to make a purchase than new visitors, with the conversion rates varying by category. Yahoo's new "Long & Winding Road" report examines consumer shopping behavior across five different verticals. Enquiro, EyeTools, and Did-It's Eye Tracking Study pinpoints how consumers interact with search engine results pages. If you're going to try to digest all the relevant research from within the past year alone, you'll have enough reading material for a cross-country flight (both directions, if you're taking notes).

We'll explore two other studies in a bit more detail; on the first one, for full disclosure, I served as one of its authors. This month, 360i and SearchIgnite released a white paper, "Giving Clicks Credit Where They're Due: What You Need to Know When Allocating Your Search Budget." This report examined searchers who clicked on paid search ads and studied the factors that led to whether they completed a transaction with that marketer. On average, searchers who converted clicked an average of 1.5 of a given marketer's ads, and those who didn't convert clicked 1.3 ads on average. Consumers who make a purchase are more active in the search process.

Conversion rates rise when consumers click a marketer's sponsored links multiple times (through repeat searches). The effect is even more pronounced when consumers find the marketer's ads through different queries (such as searching for "gadget model X" first and then "Acme Gadgets" later). The last ad consumers click before converting is disproportionately more likely to be a brand term than a non-brand term. The implication here is for marketers to provide a strong branding message for searchers reaching them through non-brand search terms. While many purchases will always require consumers to engage in a convoluted search process, marketers can strategically aim to make this process as efficient as possible.

Twenty-five percent of all conversions came from consumers who clicked more than one of a marketer's search ads. This means that such consumers conducted a search, clicked a marketer's ad, then later searched again, and clicked on that marketer's campaign again.

This might frustrate some marketers, who pay for every click and thus re-pay for that same consumer clicking their ads several times.

This leads me to wonder whether paid search will ever follow the path of pay-per-call, where the standard model dictates that the marketer doesn't pay extra if the same consumer repeatedly calls the marketer within a certain window. Ingenio says on its site, "Only the first call from an identifiable phone number will be charged within a 30-day period."  If pay-per-call becomes a major marketing vehicle in its own right as many analysts expect it to (see last week's Online Spin by Mark Naples for more), then marketers may well demand the same accounting from all their sponsored links.

Another interesting study comes from Yahoo Search Marketing, in partnership with Compete. The 2005 study assessed financial services searches for deposits, loans, and credit cards using clickstream data and surveys. Use of brand terms to start the process varied, with those accounting for 42 percent of starting terms with loans, 25 percent for deposits, and 78 percent with credit cards. Searchers who go on to fill out an application are nearly twice as likely, on average, to refine their searches. Once again, those who convert are the most active searchers. The report adds, "Marketers have the opportunity to reach those consumers who apply online up to seven times with search before they submit their application," and again, the number of searches is higher for applicants than for searchers overall.

With all of these reports, the specific data points will change by season, vertical, marketer, and even specific keyword or landing page. What marketers should take the time to understand are the research processes available that can show them the process of how their customers search.

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