Natural and easy does it

Consumers’ growing awareness and confidence with online shopping is forcing brands to raise the bar and create integrated search and website sales strategies as well as ease the purchasing process

Google may have put the cat among the pigeons when it allowed advertisers to bid for rivals’ branded trademarked keywords as part of its paid search strategy. But, while it may force marketers to employ a more joined-up search strategy, consumer trust still lies firmly with natural search – largely because of its perceived independence.

Figures released by E-consultancy show that in 2007 paid search grew by 58%, while natural search grew by 68% and was the fastest growing digital sector. The average cost per acquisition (CPA) figure in 2007 for natural search was £20.50, as opposed to £204 for paid search.

The rising CPA of paid search has helped accelerate the growth of natural search, but there are also suggestions that a bigger factor is a growing preference for natural search as consumers become increasingly resistant to traditional online advertising.

Search conversion agency Tamar commissioned Tickbox.net to research the area for its 2008 Search Attitudes Report, its second into consumers’ search preferences. The report surveyed a sample of 1,658 UK adults aged over 16.

As with the 2007 report, nine out of ten British consumers continue to prefer natural search results when shopping online. This year’s survey further reveals that 58% choose natural over paid search results because they perceive them to be independent. The 2008 report also highlights the pressure brands are under to make their sites secure and easy to use, because 51% of consumers said they are put off making a purchase online if they are unsure about the security of a site, or if they cannot find what they are looking for.

The research shows that 51% of British consumers are aware of the difference between natural and paid search results, an increase of 8% on last year. Although awareness has increased across the board since last year, a clear generational divide still exists: 65% of 16to 24-year-olds are aware of the difference compared with 51% of 35to 44-year-olds and just 38% of those aged over 55.

When asked why they choose natural over paid search links, there was a consensus across the gender and generational groups which had not existed last year. Some 58% of both women and men identified the independence of natural search results as the most important reason for choosing them over paid results, and there was also very little change across the generations. Independence was closely followed by the perception that natural search results are more likely to give consumers the results they are looking for – 51% identified this as a factor in why they prefer natural search results.

Despite the rise of social media, review and affiliate and price comparison sites, search engines remain the consumer’s favourite starting point for making a purchase online. More than half, 51%, of UK consumers begin the purchasing process with a search engine when looking to purchase from a retailer online, and 42% do so when looking to make a travel purchase.

However, brands should make sure their websites are up to scratch as only 4% of UK consumers say that “nothing” would put them off making an online purchase.

The 2008 Search Attitudes report shows that there are a variety of factors that put consumers off making an online purchase. ID fraud and other consumer-focused online threats have been frequently publicised in recent times, and 35% of consumers identified an uncertainty about the security of a site as the most likely factor to put them off making an online purchase. In addition, 20% said that a lack of clear prices is most likely put them off, and 16% are most deterred by not being able to find what they are looking for. The research reveals a stark generational divide with only 27% of 16to 24-year-olds concerned about security, compared with 43% of those aged 55 and over. And 60% of consumers also claimed that if they were directed to a specific product page from a search, they would be more likely to make a purchase.

Brands need to ensure that websites are consumer friendly to maximise the chances of attracting new customers. If brands do not offer the consumer all the assistance that they can at every stage of the purchasing process, consumers will take advantage of the choice on offer and go elsewhere.

The report shows 65% of consumers claim that if a brand name is present in search results then it would affect their next steps, with 30% clicking through to a site on the strength of this. In addition, 64% sometimes look at other result categories – such as news, images and blogs – when using a search engine. The findings demonstrate the emergence of universal search and reinforce the case for online retailers to optimise particular brand names and other types of results.

The online shopping sector continues to grow, and with it the search battle intensifies. Brands that do not consider consumer preferences in their online strategy will get left behind. Many marketers are still neglecting to treat their search engine strategy and website sales strategy as one integrated process, rather than two distinct entities. In addition, they must also consider universal search and make sure they address the factors that put consumers off making a purchase.

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