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Recent Insights Into Search User Behaviour

How well do you know the average (search engine) user? We, as SEOs, seem to spend a great deal of time focusing on the process of ‘how to rank‘. We constantly chase after ranking signals and the process of best appealing to their better senses. But what about the user?

The people actually using the search engines? It’s not something discussed all that often. So, today is as good a day as any to do just that.

A while back I came across an interesting white paper from Performics that I wanted to share the results from with you. The study looked at some 500 users that used a search engine at least once a week. This was a USA market centric study, so take that for what you will. It was conducted from 6/9/2010 ““ 6/15/2010.

There is a LOT of interesting data here folks… Enjoy.

Search Users and the Modern SERP

Some of the findings and some SEO related analysis;

SE usage per week;

  • 4 in 10 users searched more than 20+ times in a given week.
  • These users were primarily in the 18-29 and 30-39 age groups
  • Of the 20+ group, 43% used Google (with some cross-over to Bing-Hoo)

This stat is one that has increased over the years. People are far more search centric and even savvy, than in years past. More than 20+/week would have been a ‘power user’ back 5 yrs ago.


Preference and Experience Levels

This one looked at primary search engine (which may not be as important as we might think) and level of experience the users had.

Which search engine do they use most of the time?

  • Google 75%
  • Yahoo 18%
  • Bing 7%

But, this might not be entirely the whole story as we will find out shortly. Next they looked at experience levels of the users;

Which is certainly interesting given the Yahoo! numbers. Considering there is a high degree of beginner level users, I doubt they know Bing is serving the results. If that’s your demographic, it may be something worth considering to target them more than we would in some markets.


Engine Loyalty;

  • Google users were most loyal as only 66% used another search engine at times (compared to 82% of Bing users and 72% of Yahoo users)

The interesting part here though, is that people ARE using other search engines (frequently or occasionally) well over 50% of the time. This is different than the market share numbers we tend to look at. We generally assume that targeting Google is the sensible rout since they garner the lion’s share of the usage. This does call that thinking somewhat into question. Even Google users are turning to Bing/Yahoo (occasionally or frequently) more than 65% of the time.


Purchasing Decisions;

When asked about researching/making purchases, respondents agreed to the statements;

  • 83% used search engines for navigational reasons to find specific product manufacturer
  • 80% used them for informational queries about a given product prior to online purchasing
  • 78% did informational queries after seeing an advertisement elsewhere
  • 78% used search engines to find the best price (transactional / recommendation)
  • 76% carried out informational queries prior to making offline purchase.
  • 74% used search engines to find where they can purchase a product offline.
  • 63% searched for finding coupons, specials, sales etc…

This data is massively telling. Not only does it highlight the importance for offline entities to have a presence online and by extension, a local presence. But it also highlights the search tie-in with other marketing channels. We can see here how social can also play into search. They discover through social and refine through search.

User try multiple engines

Behaviour and query refinements

  • 89% said they use another search engine if they can’t find a suitable answer on one
  • 89% stated they will re-format the query if at first they don’t succeed.
  • 79% said they go through multiple pages if they don’t find what they want on the 1st page
  • 19% said they abandon search and seek offline if they don’t find what they want on the first engine

Once more, this is quite important in that we shouldn’t necessarily be looking at ONE search engine when we’re targeting. It also seems to point to the fact that long tail queries (generally what a query refinement will be) are still important. We can also consider, while generally not the focus, that page 2 listings can still hold some value. Don’t get too ‘page one’ myopic.

Images, video, multiple listings and click bias;

  • 88% said they tend to click on a result that has the exact phrase they searched for
  • 53% said they’re more likely to click on a listing if it includes and image.
  • 48% click on a listing when the company appears more than once in the SERP.
  • Only 26% said they are biased to results that contain a video.

That first one is interesting in that I have experimented with leaving meta-descriptions blank and letting the search engine choose one. This works because they will highlight the terms (exact match) found on the page. Having multiple listings (indented or otherwise) seems to have a positive, but minimal affect.

This is part of the IA (information architecture) aspects of your site and should be something to work on (more so women at 54%). As for video, it is interesting that eye-tracking shows people are fixated to images/video, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into clicks.

Organic vs Sponsored;

When asked if they know the difference between sponsored and organic results;

  • 63% said yes (most in the 50-60% range, but 80% of the 18-29 demo ““ 67% of men, 58% of the ladies )
  • 37% said no

When asked how often they click on paid vs organic listings;

Natural results;

  • 37% Always
  • 42% Frequently
  • 15% Occasionally
  • 4% Rarely
  • 2% Never

Paid Listings;

  • 5% Always
  • 15% Frequently
  • 43% Occasionally
  • 29% Rarely
  • 8% Never

It is certainly interesting to see that nearly 40% don’t actually get the difference. If we look at the ‘Always / Occasionally’ there is a full 79% using organic and only 30% on the paid.

The next time a client asks why organic is important, feel free to throw that one at them. That being said, never discount brand lift as past studies show (as does this one to some extent) be visible in both organic and paid for a query, tends to garner the best CTR).

Title, URL or Description;

When asked what element of the search listing most influenced their click (5 point scale)

  • 75% (meta) Description
  • 73% Title
  • 60% URL (men 55% – ladies 64%)

This one is quite interesting actually. Given that the TITLE element is far more of a ranking signal than the description (and URL not far behind), it show’s the care that must be taken. We’ve long known that the description is important in over-all CTR and call to action, but this seems to show that the other two elements should not be over-looked as well.

Going Vertical

Next they asked respondents how often they used each of the verticals. While I am unsure if this meant universal search or the actual vertical, let’s assume the respondents didn’t either. Grain of salt territory.

Universal Search User Behaviour

Now, the maps/local part really shouldn’t come as much surprise, as with images (eye tracking has shown the gaze interest there) the “˜related searches‘ is certainly interesting. Of late the expansion of them (appearing at the top) for brands, informational and transactional, makes this something we’d expect to see on the rise (filtering links is inclusive of this sector).

News is something we’d expect to also be strong, but at 42% I’d he hard pressed to call it that. Equally curious is the 36% that videos garnered (compared to it’s gaze companion “˜images‘). Social results also fared average, but users are unlikely to be as aware of this vertical, I’d expect that to increase. But we have more on that”¦

Google Real Time usage

When asked how often they clicked RTSR (real time search results) when they appeared in the SERP;

  • 20% Frequently
  • 36% Occasionally
  • 25% Rarely
  • 20% Never

This on is hard to really call. While (only) 56% clicked them occasionally/frequently, as noted above, users will likely become more accustomed to this aspect of the interface over time (including universal). Given the fluid nature of the social results and potential personalization (via social graph) we must consider the value of stand alone SEO activities for social. Know you query spaces.

Does preview matter?

At the time of this study only Bing had the roll-over preview, but now that Google is in the game, this is still interesting. When asked how often they use the feature on Bing;

  • 12% Frequently
  • 31% Occasionally
  • 37% Rarely
  • 20% Never

We can surely assume that Google’s, even though more visual, will suffer much the same fate. But, it must be stated, that other studies show that well designed websites do instil a greater sense of trust and generally convert better. That combined with the 40%+ that do use them, makes it a consideration for all websites.

What we can learn from this as SEOs

If you know me at all, you know I like qualifiers, perspective and the proverbial grain of salt. This is (only) 500 people. This was for the US market. This was before Google Instant and Preview. It was prior to the Google local shake up. In short, these are some interesting insights at best. It is not a replacement for understanding the more granular nature of your own demographic.

Let us consider some other factors such as beginner users being more prevalent on Yahoo. Know your market, know your demographic and know your query space. This is further borne out in the vertical search data as well. Craft you SEO programs on multiple levels.

For retailers and other B2C groups, we can note that tying in other marketing channels with search is paramount. This includes online (such as social media marketing) and traditional offline marketing efforts as well. Have consistent messages and targets.

People often ask me what “˜advanced SEO is‘. By and large they seem to believe there is some magic tactic that the ol timers possess. But that is simply wrong. To me high level goodiness is all about the targeting, strategy and intimacy with the query space. The world beyond the 10 blue links.



  1. Filipp November 15, 2010

    Very nice article David. And very interesting data. My compliment.

  2. Damion November 15, 2010

    A great article — some really interesting data here mate, and I love the way you temper it with the “grain of salt” footnote (something I think we all need to mentally append to everything we read in this industry!)

    My first time to this site, and I’m impressed enough to bookmark you and subscribe to the RSS. Keep it up!

  3. SupaDave November 16, 2010

    Great Article. The importance of eye-tracking and how little gadgets such as maps etc. really do get much more time than they deserve is prevelant.

    The statistics on Titles, URL’s and Descriptions also show us that our descriptions are much more important than we often realise.

    500 users not much, but nevertheless, Great article.

  4. Ian Art November 16, 2010

    Wow, this is amazing stuff. Kudos galore, Dave.

    I’m surprised that multiple listings are said to be not very effective, I’ve always assumed otherwise.

    Man, I’d kill to see results of a study like this today and on a bigger scale to see how things have changed.

  5. SNCadmin November 16, 2010

    @Dave, yup, we must consider the sample set, but there was some interesting tidbits none the less. As well as the description, the TITLE numbers are interesting as well. We often see people, because it’s a strong ranking factor, targeting terms more than CTR with them. For me this was a good lesson in striking the balance.

    Hey Ian, what’s shakin’ me brother? Funny thing you saying ‘today’ because we were kind of joking about how a survey from this June is already a bit dated given the changes just since then. Man, Google is just on a tear the last while.

  6. Ian Art November 16, 2010

    @Dave, Yeah Google have been innovating like hell recently, nevermind that some of their breakthroughs date back a coupla years ago when Yahoo or some other SE did exactly the same thing.

    It always amuses me how the industry is wowed by a new Google doodle, yet Bing starting to serve Yahoo results is considered no big deal.

  7. Michael Martinez November 18, 2010

    I’m not surprised at the market share overlap. I’ve been pointing out for years that the search engines have relatively small core audiences — a fact that can be easily verified by looking at Quantcast’s estimates for core audience for the search services.

    Still — very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  8. SNCadmin November 18, 2010

    Hey Michael, good to see you my friend (I do miss you posting regularily my friend, but you’ve put your time in, so I take what I can get). I was also quite interested in some of the data such as the loyalty and how a large number of people aren’t adversed to using another engine. Too many people seems to just look at ‘market share’ instead of user behaviour as this study brings to light. When people discount optimizing for other engines, they’d be wise to keep this in mind. The bits on people using search engines after learing about a product elsewhere data, seems to certainly speak to social. Those that don’t see the lines, might want to re-assess things. Anyway, thanks again for dropping in, always a pleasure to see you out and about.

  9. Mark Sprague November 22, 2010

    This is outstanding data, and it support the monthly column I write about Human Search Behavior. There are about six articles about consumer behavior at:

    Mark Sprague

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