- Internet & the Web
An Insight Into Search Engine Users And Intent
Search Engine Users
In the last unit of the course, we looked at some of the advanced methods search engines are beginning to use to index and retrieve information from web pages. In this unit of the course, we will look at another crucial factor in the search process, the search engine user.
By the end of this unit you should have a better understanding of:
- the habits and patterns of behaviour exhibited by the average searcher
- the implications these patterns have for the optimisation of your site
- the perceived difference between 'organic' and sponsored listings
- the ideal position to gain in search engine results
- aspects of your site that persuade search engine users to visit that site
This unit assumes that you have completed the previous units of the course and that you have a basic understanding of the major search engines and the manner in which they work.
4.1 The importance of the searcher
In a certain sense, the search process involves two elements that come into contact every time a search is performed. Firstly we have the search engine itself as a sophisticated piece of technology. Yet we also have to take the individual searcher into account. This individual probably doesn’t even understand how search engines work, yet, in some respects, all the efforts of the search engine and search engine optimisation are determined by the actions of this individual.
At the end of the day, search engines become more complex and sophisticated only in so far as they are trying to satisfy the demands of the individual searcher and return results that are fast, relevant and easy enough for him or her to understand. As far as SEO goes, all your efforts boil down to getting the right kind of searcher to your site, and much of the research for, and content of, your site will be determined what they type into search engines when looking for your products or services.
With this in mind, the individual searcher is an important factor to understand when optimising your site. By understanding something of the psychology of the searcher, we can gain important pointers about the most effective way to plan and optimise our site.
One of the easiest ways to get inside the mind of an average searcher is to reflect upon what you yourself do when searching online. As an Internet user, there is a great likelihood that you already use search engines on a regular basis to find information and purchase goods. The next time you look for something using a search engine, pay attention to such things as the search engine(s) you use, the kind of searches you typically perform, the amount of time you spend researching an item before you buy, the amount of search engine results you look at, and the amount of time you spend visiting pages that appear on search engine results pages (or SERPs for short). This kind of reflection can give you clues as to what the average searcher might do when looking for your products and allow some consideration of what you should do to ensure that your website satisfies their needs, demands and expectations.
TASK 1: REFLECT ON YOUR OWN SEARCHING HABITS
In this task we are going to start to get you to reflect upon what you do when searching for a product online. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Which search engine do you use? Why?
- Do you use more than one search engine? If so, which do one do you prefer and under what circumstances do you revert to another search engine?
- When searching for products in a search engine, do you start with a general search using broad keyphrases, or do you start with specific terms (brand names, models, etc..) and broaden your search if this does not return the required results?
- How many pages of search engine results pages - or SERPs - do you normally consult after performing a search?
- How many results per page of SERPs would you normally click on?
- In SERPs do you ever click on the advertising or sponsored links at the top of or to the right of the page? If not, why not? If you do, what circumstances lead you to click on paid-for links and adverts?
- Do you use search engines to research products or to research and buy products (in other words, do your visits to vendor's sites for information normally result in your visit being converted to a purchase?)
- On average, how much time do you spend on each page linked to in a SERP?
By reflecting in this manner upon your own experience as a search engine user, you can begin gain valuable insight into numerous aspects of the SEO process, from writing Title tags through to finding an effective way to market your product online. In order to explore some of these aspects, we will now take a look at what is said to be the typical experience of other Internet users.
4.2 Into the Mind of the Searcher
The material in this section is based on a whitepaper produced by Enquiro Search Solutions called 'Into the Mind of the Searcher'. The full pdf report can be found at the following address:
This report analyses the habits of search engine users during a typical search situation. Although the size of the sample group consulted for the report was very small – consisting of a focus group of 24 people of varying ages and backgrounds – it can nevertheless provide us with some insight into how the average searcher operates.
In the material that follows we will summarise some of the more important findings of this research. Taking them as indicative of general search trends (unfortunately, no wide scale or comprehensive study of searcher habits exists at the time of writing), we will then highlight some of the implications they have for designing and optimising your website.
4.2.1 Searchers and Search Engines
The first point we will look at deals with individual preference when it comes to choosing a search engine. According to the report, approximately 70% of participants in the survey use Google, with MSN and Yahoo being the next two main search engines. This accords with the material presented in unit 2 of this course which, in a wider survey of search engine usage, showed Google, Yahoo and MSN as the leading search engines, with Google as current king of the search engine market. In fact, some 16% of the users who participated in the survey had set their home page to Google.
This gives us extra impetus to optimise our sites for all the leading search engines. Although one might expect a degree of loyalty as regards which search engines users prefer, 60% of users reported that they will take recourse to another search engine if they are not happy with the results returned by their preferred search provider.
4.2.2 Researching and buying
According to the whitepaper, more people are likely to use search engines when researching a product rather than when they are buying. In fact, although the number of people who are prepared to use a search engine to research a product is significantly high (at around 60%), there seems to be a distinct drop in the number of users who will actually use a search engine to buy the product online (28%).
If the searcher is familiar with the product, they show a tendency to bypass search engines and navigate directly to a site that sells the product or brand. If such familiarity does not exist, searchers tend to revert to search engines to research products.
Users also appear to spend more time researching a product if the cost of the product is high. This research usually involves more search sessions than would be the case with a relatively low cost product.
Although this suggests that internet users spend most of their time on search engines researching a product rather than actually buying, conversion – i.e. visits to your page being converted into sales – still occurs. Conversion tends to be more likely on sites that offer information in a non-aggressive manner rather than on sites that offer users the ‘hard sell’ on a product.
The report therefore suggests that individual searchers exhibit a tendency to use search engines most during the ‘research or consideration phase of the buying cycle’. This would suggest that people use search engines to locate information even when attempting to buy something. While there is the possibility that the information users seek is simply the comparative price of goods, there is no reason not to offer as much information about your product or services as is necessary. This not only supplies an evident need for information on the part of the user; it also gives you the opportunity to place keyword-rich text on your web page, thereby increasing your chances of being picked up by a search engine for your chosen keywords (we will show you how to research keywords in the next unit of the course).
With regards to the text that you place on your web page, the research further suggests that a site is more likely to convert visits into sales if it doesn't actually try and push the product too much. To this end, make sure that your page copy offers product information and other relevant details rather than aggressive marketing.
4.2.3 Organic Vs sponsored listings
One of the most interesting points raised by research into searcher habits concerns the status of paid-for advertising in relation to 'normal' search results. Sponsored listings are the adverts that appear SERPs. They usually operate by a Pay Per Click (PPC) system whereby the company advertising pays the search engine every time a user clicks on the link in the SERP. How much the vendor pays per click is determined by their position on the page. ‘Organic’ listings, by contrast, are the free listings that appear in SERPs. These appear in the main area of the SERP.
The following illustration shows both organic and sponsored listings in Google:
Illustration 1: Organic and Sponsored Links in SERPs
- Sponsored links in top position of results page. These are more expensive than adverts in the right hand side of the page.
- More sponsored adverts in the right hand position of results page.
- This section holds the free ‘organic’ listings.
suggests that search engine users actually ‘mentally divide’ SERPs into
different sections such as the organic listings and sponsored links
outlined above. It appears that a significant number of users will
actually ignore some of these sections. In particular, the majority of
users exhibit a tendency to actually ignore the sponsored links. Nearly
80% of searchers polled in the Enquiro survey ignored such links
completely or only considered them after they had been through the
There are numerous reasons why users might remain wary of paid-for listings. Users of Google in particular appear to be particularly wary of sponsored links. This may be due in part to their perception that organic listings on Google are less 'commercial' than the other search engines. Users also show a tendency to ignore formatted advertising or anything on the right hand side of SERPs, which is the traditional positioning for advertising. As the Enquiro report suggests, many searchers may actually have become 'conditioned' to ignore anything that looks like paid-for advertising.
Users also appear to be wary of clicking on sponsored adverts to other sites. This reluctance seems to be motivated by a basic mistrust of sites that market aggressively and the problems of pop-up windows associated with such sites. One can only interpret this as a 'legacy' from the early days of Internet marketing when pop-up ads were the norm. It seems, then, that the techniques employed by the 'pioneers' of online business (if the continued popularity of pop-up blockers is anything to go by) created an issue of trust that still effects online business today.
Since many searchers appear to remain wary of sponsored links, this gives you even more reason to focus on, and optimise for, the free system of listings offered by the major search engines. Even if you have the budget to finance a PPC campaign, it may not be as effective as a high organic ranking in SERPs.
4.2.4 Position in SERPs
How high should that organic ranking be? Well, research suggests that a high positioning in search engine results can have a dramatic impact on the exposure one's site gains. Furthermore, your site's ranking should be as close to the first page as possible. In fact, research suggests that 100% of searchers will actually check the top three organic listings before clicking on links (a number of people actually appear to assume that a top listing for a search term in SERPs immediately makes the site relevant for that term).
As far as scrolling down the page to later results goes (and here one might speculate about whether Internet users in general find scrolling frustrating), searchers would tend to do so only if the first three results did not return relevant sites. If a relevant site was found in the top results, only three fifths of the participants in the Enquiro survey scrolled down to look at other listings before clicking on a link.
While the majority of users will actually examine the first few results on the first page of SERPs, evidence suggest that there is a significant drop when it comes to looking at the second page. The number of searchers that actually go to the second page of results may be as little as 20%. The remainder tend to launch a new or refined search if they don’t find what they are looking for on the first page.
It is quite a worrying factor that a significant portion of search engine users may not actually check results pages after the first page or may only do so if that page does not return relevant results. With this in mind, your aim should be to gain first page ranking for some of your main keyphrases in one of the major search engines, and preferably a position in the first few results.
4.2.5 Ever changing search fields
Research also suggests that an average search session is complex - in the sense that it involves multiple search queries - and dynamic in the sense that it involves an ongoing alteration of search terms and shifting of expectations in response to results returned, sites visited, and information received from previous queries.
Interestingly, the typical search process involves an increasing refinement of search terms. During an average search, users appear to spend some time refining their search terms, and, in general, this refinement appears to move from general search terms to more specific terms. 70% of users start broad because it seems easier to type in broad phrases, in order to generate other options, and because they don’t want to exclude potentially relevant results that would be excluded by too specific an initial search. Thereafter, these broad queries are then refined using extra qualifying terms. Such qualifying terms may include the introduction of brand at various stages during the search session.
The implications of this for SEO are twofold. Firstly, your site should be constructed in such a way that it ‘catches’ or draws in these users at the different stages of their search, as they move from general terms to more specific terms. Secondly, the individual pages that this navigation structure gives rise to should be optimised to rank for the keyphrases used at different stages of the search session.
To illustrate this principle, let’s look at a search within a highly competitive field. Say that a user is looking for a hands-free set for a Nokia 7250i mobile phone. A typical search might involve an increasing refinement of search terms such as the following:
mobile phone accessories
mobile phone accessories uk
nokia mobile phone accessories
nokia 7070 phone accessories
buy 7070 hands free set
As you can see, the user has started at a general level and increasingly become more specific in reaction to the results gained. Note also the introduction of brand at key points during the search session.
Note: As a rule, the more general a search term is, or the less keywords it contains, the more results it returns in SERPs. It seems likely that as Search Engine users become increasingly sophisticated, they react to this on an experiential level (i.e. they know by experience that general terms return results that are too broad or numerous) even if they do not reflect upon why this occurs.
Note that the above list does not take into account the possibility that a user could start at a specific level (e.g. ‘7250i hands free set’), not find the required information, and then move to a more general level (‘nokia phone accessories’). Nor does it exhaust the possible keywords a user could use when searching for that specific product. Nevertheless, it does show us that a good way to bring targeted traffic to your site would be to rank for the keywords the user employs at different points in their search, whether that is during the general initial enquiry or at more specific 'qualifying' stages.
Now, it is highly unlikely that an Internet site dealing with mobile phone accessories would sell just one product such as a 7250i handset! So, let’s assume that we are running a mobile phone accessories site in the UK. One way to ensure that you are attracting traffic would be to base your page navigation and optimisation on the principle that searchers move from general to specific search terms.
Starting with your homepage, you could make it rank for the most general term. Because general, the term will be more competitive, but this simply means that it gains more searches than specific or specialised terms. You then make other pages rank for other less competitive keyphrases, thereby ensuring that you draw searchers into different parts of your website depending on the specificity of their search.
Our mobile phone accessories site, for example, could attempt to rank for the general and highly competitive keyphrase 'mobile phone accessories' on the first page, and use other pages to rank for more specific and less competitive terms. For instance, later pages could introduce keyphrases related to brand (e.g. Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and so forth), type of accessory (mobile phone covers, data cables, spare batteries, etc.), and a combination of the two (Nokia mobile phone covers).
4.2.6 Why users click on links
Of course, gaining a good ranking in search engine results is of little use if people don't actually click on the link to your site. Fortunately, the report gives us an indication of the kind of things that will entice the searcher to visit a site during the average search session.
Some of the main reasons why searchers click on links in SERPs are as follows:
- if their exact search terms appear in the title and description
- the amount of information on products, including prices, features and reviews
- ‘trust’ - consumer reports, trusted brand names, or trusted URLs.
There are also additional factors said to persuade the customer to visit if they are buying online, such as:
- the opportunity to buy online
- offers and discounts
The above list gives additional reasons why keyphrases should be used in the Title and Meta Description tags of your HTML pages. Title tags and Meta Description tags are not just there for benefit of search engine in determining the relevancy of a page in relation to a search query. The text they contain is also the text that appears in search engine listings. The following illustration shows this:
Illustration 2. Search keyphrases as they appear in Title and Description Tags
- Page Title as it appears in search engine listings.
- Page description as it appears in search engine listings.
1 is the actual text that appears in the tags of the HTML page the listing points to
<title>TITLE GOES HERE</title>
2 is the actual text that appears in the Meta Description tag:
<meta name="description" content="TEXT GOES HERE" />
Illustration 2 shows a search for the keyphrase ‘mobile phone accessories’. Note how the actual keywords from our search phrase - ‘mobile’, ‘phone’, and ‘accessories’ - appear highlighted in the page title and description (we have further highlighted these in the first example by underlining them). A search engine user looking for mobile phone accessories would immediately notice the extent to which these results are relevant to their search.
As the first point of contact between the search engine user and your site, these on-page factors are also instrumental in persuading searchers to visit your site (thereby moving them one step closer to conversion). Relevancy for the user, or their ability to see an exact search phrase appear in listings, is therefore an important factor and one you should take into account when optimising your own site. We will show you how to optimise your Title and Description tags for specific keyphrases at a later stage in the course.
The above list of reasons can also help you select the actual text that makes up your page description. For example, as well as containing the main exact keyphrases that the searcher searched for, your description can make it clear that they can buy or purchase the product online. If you offer price comparisons or reviews of products, you can also mention it here (although if you do sell the products online, you may want to make it clear to potential buyers that you are a vendor instead of a dedicated price comparison or review site).
4.2.7 Once searchers have visited your site
Of course, persuading searchers to visit your site is only half the battle. Once they have navigated to your site, you will probably want them to do one or all of the following things:
- stay for a while
- buy something
- find your site worthwhile
- consider returning
This can sometimes be easier said than done. If the Enquiro report truly reflects patterns of online behaviour, it appears that the average visitor quickly decides whether a site they have visited suits their needs. This decision can be as fast as 10 to 18 seconds, so strategies have to be adopted to persuade them to stay. We also have to take into account the possibility that more visitors will use your site to research products than to actually buy them, so conversion can be difficult to achieve.
Fortunately, the report lists a number of things that can help in this matter. When searchers visit your site, they are said to look for the following things, all of which can positively effect their decision to stay and/or buy:
- relevance, or their search phrases appearing in visible parts of the page
- images of products
- recognised brands
- a good product selection
- product information, reviews, and comparisons between products
- price listings
- a professional layout and user-friendly navigation system
- online offers and discounts
- simple and convenient methods of purchase
- preservation of searcher ‘anonymity’ as far as possible during the buying process
Although enticing visitors to stay and buy is not strictly an SEO issue, as the end of SEO is to improve your search engine visibility in such a way that it brings more targeted traffic to your site, one must realise that this itself is a means to an end for many websites and that the ultimate aim of bringing visitors to a commercial site is to increase online sales and achieve a good rate of conversion. The above list is included to reflect this factor. Ultimately, you should consider adding the above features to your site at the same time as you work on optimising it.
TASK 2:BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
In this task we will try to synthesise some of the above material and give it real life application by applying it your own website. Answer the following questions, trying as far as possible to base your answers on the material presented in this unit of the course:
- When optimising your site, which search engines should you aim to gain high rankings in?
- Why might organic links be more popular, and more important for your site, than sponsored links in SERPs?
- What position should you strive to attain in SERPs?
- True or False: search engine users tend to move from specific search queries to broader or more general search terms?
- What things might entice a searcher to click on your link in a SERP?
- What things might entice a searcher to stay on or buy from your site once they have visited?
- Understanding the habits of the average searcher can help you in devising your optimisation strategy as these habits have significant implications for the optimisation process
- The majority of search engine users pay attention to, and trust, the free 'organic' listings in SERPs rather than sponsored links
- More users consult search engines to research products than to buy.
- Typical search sessions are complex and dynamic, involve a continual refinement of search terms, and tend to move from general to more specific search queries
- Your position in SERPs can have a dramatic impact on the number of people who visit your site. The first 3 results are particularly important. Users are reluctant to scroll down, and are less likely to consult later pages of search results.
- Your site is more likely to appear relevant to a searcher if their exact search keyphrases appear in the title and description areas of your listing in SERPs.
- Alongside perceived relevance, product information, reviews, prices and price comparisons, online discounts and brand recognition can encourage Internet users to visit, stay on, and buy from your site.
By now, you should be able to see how a basic understanding of the average searcher can assist you in optimising and designing your website as well as marketing your product or services. Although the data presented above cannot and should not be taken as a fully accurate reflection of search habits, as it is based on a fairly small sample of search engine users, it could be taken as indicative of wider or more general search trends. In this respect (and in the absence of a wider survey), this data can be considered a provisional model of how searchers search, one that possibly matches your own experience of using search engines, and one that can be employed to gain ideas about the most effective manner in which to optimise websites. It can, for example, underline the importance of employing keyphrases in key areas of your web pages such as Title tags, Meta Description tags, headings and page copy.
Of course, you cannot employ keyphrases in your page titles and descriptions until you know the keywords and terms Internet users are most likely to enter into search engines when searching for your product or services. In the next unit we will show you how to research keywords for your web pages. This takes us from outlining the basic background knowledge necessary to understanding search engine optimisation to the crucial research phase of the SEO process.
What do you understand by the following terms?
- Organic Listings
- Sponsored Links
Move on to the next unit of the course when you are comfortable with these terms and feel that you have understood the material presented above.
06: Search Engine Users (You Are Here)
07: Keyword Research
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