SearchTHIS: Preserving America's Natural Researches

It must be the research season. In the past two months several studies have come across my desk. Among them, the release of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization’s (SEMPO) research on getting in touch with advertisers and eMarketer’s amalgamated research. Each one has something unique and interesting to offer, and no matter how much I like to think of myself as unique, every once in a while a research study puts me back in my place -- as a statistic.

The gap between the internet usage patterns of interactive marketing professionals and those of average American web surfers is closing. The latest offering from DoubleClick’s Performics search marketing acquisition illustrates this nicely.

“Search Before Purchase: Understanding Buyer Search Activity as it Builds to Online Purchase” is a clunky title, but the study was conducted using comScore’s 1.5 million-strong panel and contains some interesting, albeit not surprising, findings.

Not surprising, yes. But findings that needed to be articulated out loud and in print, most definitely. I’ll explain why later.

Big News: One in two purchases preceded by search

For one, DoubleClick says that search now plays a role in nearly half of all online purchases. The researchers identified a total of 30 high-volume ecommerce websites in the Computer Hardware, Travel, Apparel and Sports/Fitness categories, and observed all of the traffic to each of those websites that came via search engines in September of last year.

It turns out that, on average, one of every two purchases was preceded by the consumer doing online research on a search engine.

Sports and Fitness fell just under the half way mark at 46 percent, with Apparel and Computer Hardware coming in at 50.2 and 56.4 percent respectively.

Of course, the percentage was markedly higher in the Travel category, where 73 percent of buyers consulted search engines before buying or booking. Finding a hotel or flight online is still pretty baffling to most un-indoctrinated non road warrior travelers. There’s a tidy little side benefit for the search sites in this one, as confusion or competition in the marketplace means high bids and great quarterly reports.

Consumers search generic terms

According to the report, the intensity of research also varied by category. Again, travelers were the most proficient, conducting an average of six relevant searches in the 12 weeks prior to purchase. Computer Hardware buyers averaged 4.9 searches, apparel buyers 4.7 searches and sports/fitness buyers coming in last at 2.5 relevant searches on average.

Another fairly predictable finding of the study was that most people search for generic terms -- as in, they did not search for the merchant or retailer. These category keyword searches accounted for about three quarters of searches in this time frame.

Again, predictability does not necessarily mean that we needn’t drill this knowledge home with advertisers. Far more frequently than I like to recall, marketers get hooked on the immediate response they receive from brand or product keywords.

I’d compare it to crack addiction, but that would just be horribly inappropriate.

Some advertisers have even wanted to remove generic keywords due to a lack or response. Here’s why that’s an enormous mistake.

The 12-week timeframe above is important. Branded searches occur closer to purchase, according to the data, which means people research in advance, using generic search terms, but when they’re ready to buy, they search for “brand only and brand + item.” Additionally, a rather negligible proportion of the searching public search for “compound phrases that include a merchant’s brand and another term.”

In essence -- and I can’t believe we needed a research study to tell us this, but we did -- consumers go to search engines when they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for in order to narrow down their choices and for general edification (hence the generic keyword activity). However, when they're ready to make a purchase, they type in the exact thing they’re looking to buy.

Bottom line: don't discount the consumer research phase

Logic and reason aside, the point of the study is to stress just how important the research stage is for search marketers. As the report states, the most striking observation is that while “many marketers consider that a click from a search engine that does not convert into a sale in the same session is worthless,” it is, in fact, vitally important to buyers who do “advance planning and research before completing their transactions.”

And that’s what you really need to know here, folks. Rather than simply treating a non-branded or product term as a failure when the quick purchase fix isn’t achieved, do your homework by studying buying behavior and recognizing the importance of each team you position against in the big Disney Lion King-esque purchase circle of keyword life.

iMedia Search Editor 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 his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.

Ryan serves as Executive Vice President at the search engine marketing specialist agency, Did-it.Com.