The Relationship Between Search Behaviour and SERP Landscape (Part 2)

This is the second and final part of a 2 part series on the relationship between search behavior and SERP landscape. Part 1 is here.


The seeds of this article arose when I was studying differences in searcher behavior between countries.

I noticed that in many countries, especially those who are relatively new to the internet being widely available, searchers seem to show, in general, lower stages of search behavior, often progressing no further than Stage 2 - Exploration.

At first, I assumed that this less sophisticated behavior was due to less experience with the internet, an assumption I now know to be false and, to a degree, ethnocentric.

The assumption that searchers in these countries are less sophisticated due to a lack of experience can be supported by the massive growth rate (500% or higher is common) of internet availability, but does not explain why even people who have had the internet for years in these countries still tend to show less sophisticated search behavior as a whole than searchers in developed countries.

There is no "national searcher" - everyone progresses by themselves as an individual due to their own experiences. Additionally, in many of these countries (typically developing countries) people who have internet tend to be well educated and spend a lot of time online - they should progress fairly quickly, yet often do not. So the question is - what's going on?

I believe the answer lies in the SERP landscape, and it's been hidden there due to the halo effect of the online industry as a whole.

You see, my research appears to show that searchers everywhere will naturally try to progress through the stages of search sophistication as they use search more and more.

However, if the SERPs do not support that progression, the progression stops. In short, increases in the sophistication of tool use is limited by the sophistication of the tool itself. Some tools simply lend themselves to more sophisticated actions than others.

How could this happen? Many ways.

Sometimes, it's due to limitations of the search engines themselves. Back in the days before Google, searcher behavior was also fairly unsophisticated, since attempts at sophisticated searches were generally foiled by small indexes filled with spam. It simply wasn't worth the effort to try to improve your search techniques when the search engine still gave you poor results.

Another reason this could happen is due to the available results. If nothing but spam is available, then you will get nothing but spam. If local websites are designed in a manner that is not search friendly, then no matter how good you are at searching, you are still unlikely to find what you need, because the search engine simply doesn't have it to give you. It may exist, but it's not available through a search engine.

GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out.

It is this second reason that appears to be why searcher behavior tends to "stall" in some countries and languages.

Although part of the blame sometimes lies on the search engines themselves for not adapting to local restrictions, culture and resources, the majority of the blame for this is, very simply, poor websites from an SEO (and often usability) perspective.

As websites for the region or language become more sophisticated and accessible to search engines (and start carrying useful information rather than being just web brochures), the search engines will begin to be able to provide a better sampling of results, thus allowing more advanced searcher behavior.

Analogy - Buying some Beans

As an analogy, think of going shopping to go get a can of beans at two different stores. The first store is a well run national chain with a huge selection and a logical, clear layout. Since you have been there many times before, and you already know exactly what you want, you will probably know exactly what to do, even if you have never bought beans before at that store.

You will go to the aisle that is most likely to contain the beans, glance quickly down it for the area most likely to contain the beans and head right there. On the way, you have probably already checked for coupons and sales, and have a very good idea of exactly what brand and size you want, along with what brands you may not want. You may also know whether you want to get the beans from the "All Natural" aisle, the "Ethnic Foods" aisle, or the general "Soups and Canned Goods" aisle.

Within seconds, you have exactly what you want, after following what is, if you think about it, a very sophisticated and effective search pattern, that was helped by a large, well-organized selection to choose from. This is Stage 4 - Control mode. You take control of your search and make it work for you.

Next, contrast this with going to get a can of beans from a nearby store that is very messy, disorganized and has little stock. First, forget coupons, the "All Natural" aisle and all of that. If you are lucky, there might actually be a "groceries" aisle. Your can will be there, in with the other cans, if you are lucky. If there is an organization to it, it's not readily apparent.

At this point, you have to throw planning and sophistication out and basically just start hunting through the shelves until you find a can of beans. The chances of it being exactly what you were looking for are remote, so you may then end up sifting through yet more cans in a vain hope that there might be another choice (hopefully one that has not expired). You may even decide to give up and either skip the beans altogether, or go check a different store. You are in Stage 2 - the Exploration mode.

In this scenario, it's not YOU who has changed and become less sophisticated, it's the shopping environment that has. You basically had to degrade your planning and shopping behavior to deal with the fact that sophisticated actions can only take place at the top end of the available actions, and the available actions are reliant upon the choices, support and quality present at the time.


In short, searchers in China, Mexico and elsewhere are only searching in unsophisticated manners because the SERPs themselves are unsophisticated, not because of some sort of cultural norm, which is often currently the assumption.

I hear this all the time: "The Chinese search like this" or "Mexicans tend to do searches this way", but this is ethnocentric and misleading.

It would be more accurate to say that "searchers in China do this" or "searchers in Mexico have to search this way". The sophistication of the searches are based on the sophistication of the search landscape, not the searchers themselves.

There are 2 major conclusions of interest to the search community that can be taken away from this, IMO.

  1. If a market shows unsophisticated searcher behavior (as evidenced by the types of searches performed), then there is almost certainly an excellent potential market for SEO (along with an attendant lack of awareness of SEO in the first place). Additionally, due to this lack of sophistication within the market, SEO and PPC are likely to very effective. There is simply less high-quality competition.

  2. Since searchers will increase in sophistication as the available search landscape evolves, it is important to prepare websites for more sophisticated searches (ie long tail terms, searches for specific on-site information rather than just contact information, etc) rather than simply rely on current KW research. You will need to evolve within your market as your searchers do. And they will, as quickly as the market does.
Hopefully these 2 articles have been helpful to you. I know the insights I've taken from coming up with them are serving me well with my current international SEO efforts.


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