What’s Happening with Web Search Behaviors?

Search EnginesMore than 460 million searches are performed every day on the Internet by U.S. consumers. A new report titled 2010 SERP Insights Study from Performics, an arm of Publicis Groupe, gives us interesting clues as to what’s happening in the world of web search these days.

The survey, fielded by Lancaster, PA-based ROI Research, queried 500 U.S. consumers who use a search engine at least once per week, found that people who search the Internet regularly are a persistent lot.

Nine out of ten respondents reported that they will modify their search and try again if they aren’t successful in their quest. Nearly as many will try an alternate search engine if they don’t succeed.

As for search engine preference, despite earnest efforts recently to knock Google down a notch or two, it remains fully ensconced on the top perch; three-fourths of the respondents in this survey identify Google as their primary search engine. Moreover, Google users are less likely to stray from their primary search engine and try elsewhere.

But interestingly, Google is the “search engine of choice” for seasoned searchers more than it is for newbies. The Performics study found that Google is the leading search engine for only ~57% of novice users, whereas Yahoo does much better among novices than regular users (~36% versus ~18% overall).

What about Bing? It’s continuing to look pretty weak across the board, with only ~7% preferring Bing.

The Performics 2010 study gives us a clear indication as to what searchers are typically seeking when they use search engines:

 Find a specific manufacturer or product web site: ~83%
 Gather information before making a purchase online: ~80%
 Find the best price for a product or service: ~78%
 Learn more about a product or service after seeing an ad elsewhere: ~78%
 Gather information before purchasing in-store or via a catalog: ~76%
 Find a location for purchasing a produce offline: ~74%
 Find coupons, specials, or sales: ~63%

As for what types of listings are more likely to attract clickthroughs, brand visibility on the search engine results page turns out to be more important than you might think. Here’s how respondents rated the likelihood to click on a search result:

 … If it includes the exact words searched for: ~88%
 … If it includes an image: ~53%
 … If the brand appears multiple times on the SERP: ~48%
 … If it includes a video: ~26%

The takeaway message here: Spend more energy on achieving multiple high SERP rankings than in creating catchy video content!

And what about paid or sponsored links – the program that’s contributing so much to Google’s sky-high stock price? As more searchers come to understand the difference between paid and “natural” search rankings … fewer are drawn to them. While over 90% of the respondents in this research study reported that they have ever clicked on paid sponsored listings, only about one in five of them do so on a frequent basis.

Where are Newspapers Now?

Newspaper ad revenues continue in the doldrums.John Barlow of Barlow Research Associates, Inc. reminds me that it’s been awhile since I blogged about the dire straits of America’s newspaper industry. The twin whammies of a major economic recession along with the rapidly changing ways Americans are getting their news have hammered advertising revenues and profits, leading to organizational restructuring, bankruptcies, and more.

But with the recession bottoming out (hopefully?), there was hope that the decline in newspaper ad revenues might be arrested as well.

Well, the latest industry survey doesn’t provide much cause for celebration. A poll of ~2,700 small and mid-size businesses conducted this summer by Portland, OR-based market research firm ITZBelden and the American Press Institute finds that ~23% of these businesses plan to cut back on newspaper advertising this year.

The kicker is that these revenues are being spent, but they’re being put to use in other advertising media.

The ITZBelden survey found that a similar ~23% of companies plan to up their 2010 digital ad spending anywhere from 10% to 30%. This compares to only about 10% planning to increase their print advertising by similar proportions.

Moreover, the survey findings reveal that small and mid-size U.S. businesses have moved into digital marketing in a significant way. Not only do more than 80% of them maintain web sites, they’re active in other areas, including:

 ~45% maintain a Facebook or MySpace page
 ~23% are engaged in online couponing
 ~13% are involved with Craigslist
 ~10% are listed on Yelp! or similar user-review sites

One area which is still just a relative blip on the screen is mobile advertising, in that fewer than 4% of the respondents reported activities in that advertising category.

Where are these advertisers planning to put their promotional funds going forward? While newspapers should continue to represent around one quarter of the expenditures, various digital media expenditures will account for ~13% of the activity, making this more important than direct mail, TV and Yellow Pages advertising.

There was one bright spot for newspapers in the survey, however. Respondents expressed a mixture of confusion and bewilderment about the constantly evolving array of digital marketing communications options opening up … and they’re looking for support from media experts to guide their plans and activities.

And where do they see this expert advice coming from? Newspaper ad reps.

Perhaps the Yellow Book’s “Beyond Yellow” small business advertising campaign – you know, the one that touts not only the Yellow Pages advertising but also web development, online advertising, search marketing and mobile advertising – is onto something.

Google’s Instant Search: Instant Irritation?

Google's Instant Search is a Non-StarterHow many of you have been noodling around with Google’s new Instant Search functionality since its unveiling earlier this month? I’ve spent the better part of a week working with it, trying hard to keep a “completely open mind” as to its benefits.

I’ve finally came to the conclusion that … I can’t stand it. I’m a pretty fast typist, and generally know what I’m searching for. I really don’t need Google “pre-anticipating” search results for me, and find the constantly jumping search results window extremely off-putting to the point of distraction.

I gave Instant Search a full week … and couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve now elected to turn it off completely.

Wondering if I was the only one with this view … it certainly didn’t take long to find out that there are a great many people out there who feel the same way. You can use Google search (either the “instant” or “traditional” will do fine) to find any number of blog posts and user comments about Google Instant Search that are just one notch shy of mutinous — and hardly genteel in their choice of language. (A few examples can be found here and here and here.)

If the comments by disgruntled users are to be believed, Bing/MSN may find itself with a nice little bump in search volume market share by the end of September.

And if that actually happens, Google Instant might die a quiet death – which wouldn’t be the first time Google laid an egg in its “throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” approach to product development.

But if Google Instant does gain traction … there are some negative implications for search marketers as well. Many companies seek to structure their online marketing campaigns by determining the optimal amount of spending on search advertising, display ads and social media. The key to success in this endeavor is undertaking a process that examines the millions of cookies and billions of clicks that are made by web users, along with factoring in other elements like geographic location and time of day.

All of this information is weighed against the cost of various ads and the likelihood of success as they are served to the user. That’s determined by running regular models of millions of keywords and word combinations, judging the relative costs to determine the optimum frequency. For some of the most aggressive marketers, these models are run once or twice daily.

The advent of Google’s Instant Search scrambles all of that, because it makes the process even faster and more hectic than before. As those of you who have experimented with Instant Search know, you start seeing “suggested” search results with just the first one or two keystrokes … and those choices continue to change with each new keystroke made or movement of the cursor down the list of Google’s suggestions. For marketers, the result is a lot more velocity on the ad side – and more price changes.

As proof of this, within the first few days of Instant Search’s launch, sites that Instant Search recommends after the first one or two letters are typed into the search box – “Mapquest,” “Ticketmaster” and “Pandora” are three useful examples – were experiencing significant increases in traffic, whereas their hapless competitors were not.

If that’s what is happening with the big boys, where does this put smaller businesses? The answer is obvious: They’re going to get squeezed big-time … and as a result, their search advertising costs are going nowhere but up.

Mighty sporting of you, Google.

Searching for effective lead generation and conversion.

In the current business climate, companies are relying more than ever on new sales opportunities to replace business that has been lost with current customers. And it’s pretty clear by now that “search” has emerged as the form of online promotion that generates the best lead generation and conversion results — outstripping other e-promotional tactics such as online display advertising and newsletter sponsorships.

This isn’t surprising, of course. Search advertising captures the interest of online viewers precisely when they’re in “search mode” for specific products and services, rather than when they’re just surfing the ‘net for news and updates.

(In fact, some advertisers have come to believe that even print advertising outperforms online display advertising. That’s because readers are more likely to browse all the way through print publications. Compare that to visiting informational web sites where viewers are far more prone to selectively pick and choose the pages that they open. A well-placed display ad on a “new technology news” page, for example, might be invisible to the vast majority of viewers who come to the home page and then decide to click through to only one or two additional pages on the site.)

But back to search. Many advertisers wonder which is most effective: gaining high “natural search” rankings that occur based on the content of the web site, or opting for pay-per-click search listings such as Google’s AdWords program with their entries on the right side of the screen.

As it turns out, both tactics have their pluses.

In fact, a new year-long study that ended June 30, 2009 of more than 25 e-tail web sites by Engine Ready, Inc., a search engine software development firm, found that visitors who clicked through to the sites from paid search ads were ~50% more likely to make a purchase, compared to visitors who came to the same sites via clicking on a natural search link.

Specifically, Engine Ready discovered that the conversion rate from pay-per-click links measured 2.03%, while the conversion rate was only 1.26% from organic search clickthroughs.

On the other hand, various research studies conducted over the past few years demonstrate the clear popularity of natural search listings over paid search listings. It’s been shown pretty consistently that around two thirds of total clicks are made on natural search listings, compared to just one-third on pay-per-click listings.

So the key takeaway is that any marketing program worth its salt incorporates search marketing as a key component. And in most cases, that effort should encompass search engine optimization for natural search rankings along with a pay-per-click advertising program.

More Action on the Search Engine Front

Bing logo designWolfram Alpha logoDespite the fact that Google has proven itself to be all but immune from threats posed by competing search engines, hope springs eternal. Within the past couple weeks alone, two new challengers have emerged, accompanied by much fanfare in the business press.

Microsoft takes yet another swipe at Google with its new Bing search engine. Based on an earlier one called “Kumo,” some industry observers — though not all — believe it is a pretty good competitor. Reviewers are particularly pleased with the presentation of refined versions of search queries. Bing also features a rollover display of each link’s content, allowing you to see how useful it will be before clicking through to the site.

The search engine also appears to index more recent “breaking news” items, whereas with Google, those results are not shown unless you click through to Google News — an extra step.

The big question is whether Bing will be able to wean web users away from their habit of searching on Google as their default choice. Certainly, Microsoft is putting some serious promotional dollars behind the launch — upwards of $100 million according to Advertising Age magazine. But based on the tea leaves, a wholesale change in search behavior seems unlikely. Search habits aren’t going to change dramatically unless there is a dramatic improvement in the effectiveness and speed of search activity. Fom what we see of Bing so far, we’re talking about improvements nibbling around on the margin rather than big sweeping change.

But “big sweeping change” just might be the recipe for Wolfram/Alpha, the other new entrant in the search engine sweepstakes. That’s because W/A isn’t actually a search engine in the classsic sense. Instead, its developers refer to it as a “computational knowledge engine” that uses complex algorithms to search databases to come up with answers to questions, rather than presenting a list of sources where the answer might be found. It can report some really cool factual results just based on the user typing in, for example, a date range, several city names, or an animal species.

The key difference between Wolfram/Alpha and Google is that W/A does not index web pages. Instead, it draws answers from a wide range of information-packed databases. So if you want to know the number and magnitude of hurricanes hitting North America in the past 15 years, you’ll get a specific answer rather than being presented with a series of web links wherein you might find the answer to be hiding.

Some observers see the potential for W/A and Google to team up rather than compete against one another. After all, what they do isn’t directly competitive, but in more respects complementary. And in an interesting twist, it turns out that Stephen Wolfram, the ~50-year-old computer scientist and developer who created the software platform upon which W/A is based (called “Mathematica”), once supervised a summer intern by the name of Sergey Brin — who would go on to develop Google with partner Larry Page.

Sergey and Stephen teaming up once again would be quite the coincidence … or would it really?

Search … and destroy? Nah.

New statistics published earlier this month by Hitwise show that Google continues merrily on its way to even greater heights of dominance in the search engine field.  Despite the Don Quixote-like efforts of other search engines like MSN, Ask and Yahoo to take a run at Google’s position, the latest stats show that Google’s search engine is as popular as ever.

More popular, in fact.  The numbers reveal that Google’s share of search activity has now risen to 72% versus 67% a year earlier, whereas the others continue to decline.  Yahoo is in second position, but getting 21% of search share is about on par with H. Ross Perot’s vote percentage in the 1992 presidential election – all hat and no cattle.

More startlingly bad is MSN’s performance at around 7% of search activity, because they’ve been trying hard to make a dent in Google’s position. Keep on trying, gents.  Maybe you’ll break 10% share before long, although I doubt it.

Does any of this come as a surprise?  After all, people are creatures of habit. And when a habit gets as big as this, it’s really hard to break.

Also, most people typically take the path of least resistance. And when it comes to search, isn’t Google the easiest path?  Simple visual layout … easy to use … robust results.  What’s the point of going anywhere else?

UPDATE4/1/09 – As if on cue, another search engine bites the dust.  Wikia has announced it is closing down its Wikia Search project.  Introduced to great fanfare last year, Wikia was intended to be a user-generated, open search engine.  The problem?  Wikia Search was simply not generating any sort of worthwhile volume.  In fact, traffic was running about 10,000 unique users per month.  That’s just a blip on the screen — and certainly disappointing considering the success of other initiatives like Wikipedia and Wikia Answers.  Further proof that to be first in cyberspace with a good idea and good execution is a huge advantage … and to be fourth or fifth is considerably more difficult, even fruitless.