Searching for more sales

Paid-for search may be a success story, but consumers have far more trust in natural search results, suggesting a need for a more joined-up approach to search engine and online sales strategies

Last week’s figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau show that Google’s share of search advertising has risen to 75%. In the UK, the paid-for search market accounts for 57.8% of the total £2.02bn spent online – £1.2bn spent on paid-for search in the UK. But can the inexorable rise of paid search continue? There are many in the industry who doubt it, saying consumers lack trust in paid search and are turning overwhelmingly to natural search results for online purchases.

Tamar, the search conversion agency, commissioned Tickbox.net to research the area for its 2007 Search Attitudes Report, surveying a sample of 1,531 UK adults aged over 16. Tickbox.net is a fully accredited member of the British Market Research Association.

Nine out of ten British consumers prefer natural search results when shopping online and 70% say they abandon a purchase if search results include negative comments about the brand in question, according to the 2007 Search Attitudes Report. The research shows that 43% of UK consumers are aware of the difference between natural and paid-for search results and that 92% prefer natural search results when looking to buy a product or service. Awareness of the difference is a clear generational issue, with 55% of 16 to 24-year-olds being aware of the difference compared with 51% of 25 to 34-year-olds and just 32% of those aged over 55.

When asked why they prefer natural search results to sponsored links, women trust natural results to be the most relevant while men are more cynical about the degree to which paid search results are manipulated by keyword bidding. Cynicism over the independence of sponsored links increases with age and there is a stark contrast of awareness between the sexes – 53% of men claim to know the difference between paid and natural search links compared with 39% of women.

Sponsored links are most effective when targeting 16 to 24-year-olds, but only 12% prefer to click on them instead of a natural search results.

By contrast, brands are better served by using natural search engine optimisation (SEO) when targeting those over 55. Silver-surfers are the most sceptical about clicking on sponsored links, with 94% saying they always prefer using natural results.

The rise of social networking and citizen journalism has presented brands with a significant new problem for managing their online reputation. When conducting a search, 70% of UK consumers will not click through to a company’s website if the search results include negative comments about that company.

McDonald’s and Starbucks are two iconic brands suffering from negativity in search results. When searching on the brand names, the first page of Google results inc-ludesnegative comments, such as “I hate Starbucks”, campaign against “McDonald’s exploitation of animals, people and the environment”.

The report shows that negative comments in natural search results have a profound impact on click-through and sales for brands. Faced with negative comments about a particular company, 58% of consumers would go as far as to visit a competitor’s site instead. The remaining 42% abandon their search completely.

Men and women are equally put off by negative search results, while 25 to 34-year-olds are the most sensitive; 72% will not click on the link of the brand in question if a search shows negative results. Negative comments, although only likely to appear in natural search results, have the same detrimental effect on the click through rates of both a brand’s natural and sponsored links.

Brand owners must implement online reputation management strategies to minimise the negative impact. This is achieved through natural SEO to ensure greater exposure of official sites and minimise the profile of negative comments by pushing them off the first results page.

The report also shows that 79% consumers are more likely to make an immediate purchase if a search link takes them directly to the page of the product or service they are looking for. The findings reinforce the case for online retailers developing multiple, optimised landing pages for specific products and services. This will ensure potential customers find exactly what they are looking for more easily and are taken directly to the specific product’s landing page, avoiding any risk of getting lost while attempting to navigate through a company’s website.

The majority of marketers continue to be preoccupied with fighting for prime position in paid-search rankings to drive traffic to their websites without considering how to convert better those visitors into paying customers.

Marketers need to take a joined-up approach to treat their search engine strategy and online sales strategy as one integrated process, rather than two distinct entities. The joined-up search process is all about learning from testing and ensuring the strategy’s focus is completely on the customer’s requirement.

Neil McCarthy, director, Tamar, contributed this week’s Trends Insight

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