Behind the Numbers: Rev Up the Search Engine

Internet search engines have become an essential part of American life. In fact, in addition to getting breaking news and retrieving e-mail, search is an integral part of the Internet user's daily routine, as confirmed by recent studies by Hitwise usa, The Pew Internet & American Life Project, and comScore Networks.

More than 50 million people on any given day use search engines, and at least two-thirds of Internet users use them several times a week. ComScore found that in a single month in 2004, almost 4 billion searches were conducted.

During that month, the average user performed 33 searches, about 44 percent from home, half from work, and the rest from university-based computers. They also spent 41 minutes at such sites, scrolling through 1.8 result pages per search, 45 percent of which were sponsored results and 7 percent of which were for local information. More importantly, 44 percent said that when using search engines, they are looking for vital information they absolutely need.

Search started in 1990, when Alan Emtage developed Archie (derived from the word archive) to scour ftp sites and index files on the still-young Internet, which had only standardized the TCP/IP language in 1978. Then came indexing, robots, databases, and WebCrawler and Lycos in 1994. A year later brought AltaVista and Excite; '96 delivered Inktomi and Ask Jeeves. In 1997, Northern Light was launched; in '98, Google. Then AlltheWeb and Teoma preceded Yahoo! Search and msn Search in 2004. Recent studies find that Google, Yahoo!, and MSN currently dominate the search landscape, accounting for about three-fourths of the estimated 1.2 billion weekly searches.

The popularity of this new communication medium, and the opportunities available to businesses to market their product through these channels, spawned search marketing. Keyword optimization and selection to improve the ranking of relevant words started an essentially no-cost way to improve search results. Now sponsored search, or paid advertising, buys a search engine ranking or inclusion based on cost for clicks, impressions, registrations, or other metrics.

Relatively new is "click to call," a format appealing to the almost 14 million businesses without Web sites and to businesses that thrive on direct consumer contact. Though pay-per-call ads are generally more expensive, those motivated to pick up the phone are often closer to a purchase decision and therefore more likely to be "closed" with personal attention.

Since shopping is a top priority in search engine visits, demography and psychographics come increasingly into play when trying to accurately determine a customer's preferred medium. A recent Hitwise Online Search Report suggests that Ask Jeeves is more of a "question site," responding to three or more search words, while 87 percent of the searches done on the top three sites contain only one or two words. In addition, Google has more male visitors, while msn and Ask Jeeves attract mostly female Internet users. Ask Jeeves also receives the most "downstream" visits in shopping and classified, while more searchers use Google and Yahoo! to get to the news and to other media categories. msn has the highest composition of visitors over age 55 while Yahoo! leads in the 18 to 24 age group.

"There is a phenomenal momentum behind search engine marketing," says Gary Stein of JupiterResearch. It's easy to see why: More than 107 million Americans use search engines, and one third of them say "they couldn't live without them."

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