In an inspired report released this month, "Searching for Loyalty: Why Focusing on Market Share Won't Cut It," market research firm Compete writes, "Engaged or heavy users of a search engine or portal are not necessarily loyal ones." (The report's available for free with registration at Compete's site.) Let's explore how Compete came to this conclusion, and then we'll see what this means for marketers and publishers.
Compete developed a Share of Search Activity (SOSA) metric to determine search engine user loyalty. The firm takes a search engine and assesses the percentage of searches its users conduct across all engines. For instance, 71 percent of Googles users' searches are conducted on Google, while the other 29 percent of Google users' searches occur on other engines (as of December 2005). Compare that with Lycos, bringing up the rear, where less than 6 percent of its users' searches are conducted on Lycos; 94.2 percent of searches by Lycos users occur on other engines.
Delving deeper, Compete assesses the loyalty of personalized homepage users for AOL, Google, MSN, and Yahoo. Google is the only engine where personalized homepage users are more loyal than all searchers. While 71 percent of all Google users' searches are conducted on Google, 77.8 percent of Google's personalized homepage users' searches are conducted on that search engine. This is the exception to the rule. AOL generally achieves a 23.2 percent SOSA, but only 11.2 percent from its personalized homepage users; for MSN, it's normally 27.8 percent, but drops to 18.0 percent with personalization; Yahoo reaches a 48.1 percent SOSA but only 38.7 percent for My Yahoo.
Reverting to plain English, this means AOL's, MSN's, and Yahoo's personalized homepage users are less loyal than its overall user base. Why?
I asked Greg Saks from Compete, who first alerted me to the research. He said, "It's interesting. We frequently see highly active online users are often the least 'loyal.' Often it's because more sophisticated online consumers (i.e., personalized homepage users) like to have a variety of online resources at their disposal. The average consumer who uses Yahoo Search every so often may be perfectly satisfied, but power users that have customized My Yahoo pages are more likely to have a variety of engines that they enjoy using (especially Google)."
The Compete study offers a very smart, sharp perspective with quite a few implications for search engines and even a few nuggets for search marketers and their agencies of record. However, conventional wisdom need not be tossed out the window. Loyal customers remain in high demand--the more loyal the better. And users of personalization services should also be coveted.
Yet thanks to this research, you shouldn't confuse loyal consumers and personalization users as one and the same. Your most loyal consumers are sheep--the ideal audience for mass media, but not as coveted online. Your personalization users are wolves, always on the prowl, taking advantage of all your site's bells and whistles while spending time with your competitors.
The truth is, you want both of these categories of users, the more the merrier. Once you find them, treat them well, and minimize their reasons to look elsewhere. Perhaps the biggest reason personalization users are often so fickle is that personalization is often confused with customization. The two can be one and the same, but how often have you customized a Web site and said, "Wow, that really speaks to me and my needs"?
We still have a ways to go toward that end. In the meantime, give both your sheep and wolves plenty to feast on.