PART 1: STAGES OF SEARCHER BEHAVIOR
The following is original research developed from several hundred interviews across 9 countries (Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, China, Japan, Korea, England and France), combined with insights gleaned from both formal training in cultural anthropology and HCI (Human-Computer Interaction - aka usability). That said, I could be totally wrong. But I don't think so.
I was explaining this theory to a businesswoman in Brazil a couple of days ago and it occurred to me that I hadn't written about it yet, nor had I actually shared any of this with any of my SEO colleagues - forgive me, I'm writing a book on international SEO and as a result my blogging has been slow lately.
Here is the insight: People search differently at different stages in their comfort levels and experience with search engines, but progression through these stages are in turn affected by the SERP landscape they are provided.
This is most prominently (though not exclusively) visible within intranational searches, but this behavior can also be seen in any area where the SERP landscape is different from "standard", such as mobile search, image search, local search, and so on.
Searcher Behavior Stages
The speed of progression through these stages can vary based on how often the searcher searches (dozens of times per day vs a few times per month), the topics for which they search (each major topic will have it's own progression), and whether they get help or training (or have previous experience).
But this is the general progression of search stages:
- Trust. A searcher at this stage is a novice, and has no idea what to expect as far as results for their search. In general, they will click on the first link that is not clearly spam or inappropriate (some novices to computers in general as well as search will not even attempt to look for spam or inappropriate results - they will simply trust the search engine to answer their question). If they don't find what they are looking for, they tend to blame themselves for making a bad search or assume the information is not available.
Searches tend to be simple and general ("taxi" or "how to babysit"). Repeat searches may get slightly more complex (ie the addition of a location - usually at the end of the search as an addition to the original) but not too much more complex - they tend to assume the search engine is much smarter than they are and will figure it out. Users at this level often do not realize the difference between PPC ads and organic results (or don't care).
- Exploration. Fairly quickly, searchers tend to progress to the next stage (since the first tends to be unfulfilling), which is exploration. At this stage, there are several ways it will play out, but the most common is the "serial-clicker" - someone who goes though every (or almost every) result in the desperate hope that one of the results will be an answer. Another common scenario is the searcher, rather than going back to the original search results, will begin to click on links within the site they landed on, surfing from page to page and site to site. MFA sites make a lot of money based on this behavior. This is a very important stage to remember, and I'll tell you why in Part 2. These searchers may go several levels deep in the results (page 3 and beyond).
At this point the user is still trusting of the search engine, so search queries tend to be very similar to the trust stage. Instead, the searcher is modifying their own behavior (still assuming the problem is with themselves or with the available data) by clicking differently and exploring the results to try to find their answers.
- Analysis. At this stage, the searcher starts getting smarter and more experienced. They have come to realize that clicking on more links isn't really the answer. At this point, depending on their personality, the results they have seen so far, and other criteria, they will begin to change their tactics. Some of the tactics they may try include one or more of the following:
- looking at the results page for likely candidate sites before clicking on any (aka "sniper" mode)
- trying other search engines
- beginning to use more sophisticated searches and planning ahead (ie putting the location first, then the query)
- Figuring out the difference between PPC and organic listings (and tending to avoid PPC)
- Finding and re-using "tried and true" search patterns (like "X reviews" "X FAQ" or "X wiki"
- Control. At this stage, the searcher becomes sophisticated and takes control over their searches. They realize that the results a search engine provide are in part controlled by the search query itself, as well as the results available. This is usually the level most people eventually find themselves at.
At this stage, advanced search tactics are used, such as:
- tiered searches (searching in a general manner, then using information gleaned from those results to perform the "real search" using the information and keywords from the previous search - like looking up the wikipedia entry for a topic, then using keywords and ideas from that to perform a second, "real" search)
- searches based on likely content or title of a desired result, rather than the user's question
- long tail searches become more prevalent
- Simple parameters such as quotes or "results from this country" are more likely to be used
- Actively trying to prevent bad or off-topic results by using negative parameters or less ambiguous terms.
- Expert. Most searchers do not reach this stage, as it requires study and is more difficult to do than the results are generally worth for most searches. Experts will use advanced search parameters, tiered searches, and other advanced techniques that require a good knowledge of search engine behavior. This category includes information and search professionals (SEO's, researchers, topic experts, advanced students).
Searches are planned out, often "long tail" or tiered, and can include advanced and multiple parameters. PPC ads, often avoided at the control and analysis stages, will begin to be clicked on if they appear to answer the query. Experts are after the best result, and don't usually care how they get it. They will intelligently make exceptions to general rules of good searching if they believe the result will be good.
Well, that's my list of searcher behavior stages.
The next thing to realize is that these stages may repeat themselves for different queries or topics.
For example, someone may search at a Control or even Expert stage for a topic related to their work or hobby, but when confronted with something totally new (like planning a wedding) is likely to go through the stages again, though usually at a much faster rate than a new searcher would (sometimes in a few hours or less).
They know nothing about the topic, so they need to start by trusting the search engine again.
While the above information is useful in and of itself, in Part 2, I'll go over how people (and entire cultures/nations) can get "stuck" at certain stages, and the effect this has on international SEO and SEM.