SearchTHIS: Searching for Research

Search engine user and use studies are everywhere. Everyone is out to prove the value of something and demonstrate that their way of interpreting data is the best way. Of course, the perusal of and ultimately useful takeaway from said research requires a delicate, sometimes skeptical eye. One study says paid search is the golden goose, another says everyone is ignoring paid listings. So who's right?

If you are like me (heaven forbid) you use many sources for information and scrutinize them carefully. Two studies have recently come across my desk that may shed some light on the daily difficulties of understanding the latest round of search activity.

While at AD:TECH, I heard the latest from Gord Hotchkiss, president and chief executive of Enquiro, a Canadian search solutions firm, among other things. On the way back, I picked up a copy of the latest Hitwise search site study. Both shed some uncharted light on search.

ENQUIRO-ing minds want to know

Focus groups and surveys can provide us with attitudes beyond observational data shown in panel-based compilations. Enquiro conducted a bit of primary research with opt-in search users to not only get their thoughts on commerce-based searches, but also to listen to the search pathology. Most research studies are less than entertaining to read, but I have to admit, both recent Enquiro papers had me hanging on like I was reading a Nick Hornsby novel.

Among the revelations offered, Enquiro has grouped searchers into four categories with progressive search logistics. The first group comprised mostly young men called "scan and clickers." This group moves through search results quickly and rarely reads the detail on search listings, paid or otherwise. Rather than look on subsequent pages, they preferred to abandon a search quickly. Young men moving in and out fast and not paying attention to details? Whodathunkit? I do so miss my youth. Moral: If you want to reach the young ones, better be quick and relevant.

The second group sounds like a dance move: "two-step scanners." Apparently when a man approaches middle age, he adds a step to search activity. The 42-year-old (average age) males gave search results a once over, and then charged back in for more if nothing seemed like an obvious choice. My personal theory is at this age, a man is either married or in a long-standing relationship. This results in an individual trained to spend a bit more time on the details. Something tells me I am going to get a few emails about that last comment.

The last two groups are "deliberate researchers" and "1-2-3 searchers." Neither group seemed to like sponsored results, both read the listings and finally, both contained some women. The difference between the former and the latter search group was that deliberate researchers read all of the listings and then made a decision, and the 1-2-3s tended to select the first relevant result and run.

Speaking of researching a purchase, another "ah-ha" in the study showed a trend for users being in the early stages of the buying cycle in search. I have seen a few studies leaning 180 degrees from this perspective. In fact, a portion of the value proposition for search is its directive purchase tendency. I'd say both points are valid, but one must ponder the depth of research that has to be conducted on the behalf of the product or service offered. Longer decisions on higher consideration (and priced) purchases while lower consideration offerings may happen a bit more quickly. When brand search terms are involved, abandon the long buying cycle approach and go for the gusto.

Of course, the data comes from a small sample (24 Canadians, don't get me started on the Canuck factor) but I think the behavioral information proves valuable, nonetheless. Enquiro monitored user activity and each user received a post activity interview to gather more intelligence. For example, while some groups moved away from paid listings, Enquiro did point out that relevant paid results had a good chance of receiving action from searchers. In any case, let's see what the good people from Hitwise have to say.

News from Down Under

The Melbourne, Australia-based online measurement company, Hitwise, threw a whopper or two our way recently with its latest venture into search intelligence. I am referring to the report that became famous of late for pointing out that search activity paled in comparison to porn site visits. The study showed that while top three search sites Yahoo!, MSN Search and Google accounted for 5.5 percent of visitors in the United States, more than 18 percent went to porn.

The mainstream press has been a bit unfair on this one since all porn content was grouped together and compared to three search sites. I wonder how the numbers would look if you compared the top three porn sites to all search, or, how about people searching for porn? Since I am approaching sidebar rant status, I'd like to take a moment to thank the porn industry for the dominant portion of ad formats we all enjoy today.

Not surprisingly, Hitwise reported that between August 2003 and August 2004, Google's search audience grew more than 30 percent while Yahoo! grew only 2.4 percent and poor MSN lost about 15 percent of its audience. Ouch. In the grand tradition of combining qualitative (more informative) with quantitative (hard numbers) research to form a conclusion, another interesting note from the Enquiro paper pointed out that few users had trouble distinguishing paid listings from unpaid ones in Google -- while a large portion were confused as to who paid for what in MSN. As I have said many times, all search is paid and we are training the U.S. population to think paid search is bad. This phenomenon might just explain MSN's southward audience trend.

More bad news for Yahoo! and MSN is detailed in the report showing that both sites are reaching the lower income demographic in the household income range of $30,000 to $60,000. How about some good news for MSN? While the evil scientists deep within Microsoft's search bunker are working on the next secret search weapon -- codename: Longhorn -- it seems users are looking to MSN for shopping and travel commerce activity at a higher frequency than on Google or Yahoo! Good news for cheap travel vendors, bad news for high-priced luxury vacation sales.

Speaking of travel, it seems users are trending toward vertical search sites in shopping and classified categories as well. Highlights from the Hitwise study credited this assessment to a drop in search referrals to these content areas from search sites. Makes perfect sense -- users in this area are looking for reliable, accurate information and once one finds a site with those qualities, one really doesn't need the search site anymore.

Know end in sight

Sure, search user habits are the subject of much debate these days. Last year's IAB search study had some search marketers up in arms because the data pointed toward paid search favorability among users. Search firms and optimization gurus were quick to point out user habits led them to organic or natural results. The fallout from said action? Marketers are once again left wondering.

The IAB is doing another research study this year, and more studies, white papers and alleged research will come our way, inevitably. The horrible truth is many of these reports will have their credibility called into question because of small sample sizes, sponsor-driven agendas or natural biases. Rest assured, I'll be here to help wade through it all. That is, if I haven't gone blind from all the data and chosen a simpler life among the monks in Tibet. Until next week, my friends -- or as the Dalai Lama says, "Tashi Dalek."

iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.