Biznology
Where business and technology create a winning customer experience.

I use the Google toolbar—maybe you do, too. It saves a few clicks when you want to search, and you probably don’t think about it very much. You need to think about it, though, because it threatens your business. That toolbar is changing Web visitor behavior—it’s a constant invitation to leave your site at any time. That’s the subject of this month’s Biznology newsletter.

That toolbar makes it easier to leave your site. The moment your visitors are not sure they will reach their goal for visiting your site, that toolbar is there to whisk them away. A few years ago, these visitors would have used your site’s search engine, but today they have a choice. If they use Google’s search instead of yours, their next click may take them away from your site.

Imagine that you run an e-Commerce site that sells laptop computers. If the visitor to your site does not see a link with the word “Laptop” in your navigation, typing the word into the toolbar is tempting. Once they do, they may get results from all over the Web and visit a competitor’s site. Or maybe they are looking for a specific laptop model, and when they search they get one of your affiliate’s pages and buy from them instead of direct from you.

Understanding the Toolbar Threat

Toolbars, for those who don’t use one, can be downloaded and easily installed in a Web browser. They appear on the browser screen all the time, so that a searcher merely moves the cursor to the input box and types in a query. One button press later and that user is looking at search results that may or may not include your site.

Toolbars can search the entire Web, but they typically have a “site search” feature as well. So your site visitors can enter queries into the toolbar and press the site search button to see only pages on your site. At first, this may seem comforting, because you’d expect toolbar users might stay on your site (and find what they are looking for), but it does not always have a happy ending for your Web site, for several reasons:

  • Searchers may click the “wrong” search button. Even veteran toolbar users may hit the button to search the entire Web instead of pressing the site search button. If they do, they may next click a result that takes them away from your site.
  • Searchers may click on the paid search results. Although the site search organicresults are from within your Web site, the paid results could be from anywhere—even your competitors. Or maybe they’d be your own paid ads—you might be paying Google to send visitors back to your site when they were already there!
  • Google’s site search results may be poor. And when they are, your visitor may go elsewhere. Although Google’s search engine is very good, your own site search may be tuned better to the queries your visitors use. For example, your pages may call your computers “notebooks,” but you’ve tuned your search engine to find the right pages when the searcher calls them “laptops.” Or you may restrict your results to the part of the site the visitor is in, or to a country site. Google’s search won’t do these things.

For all of these reasons, it’s better for your Web site if your visitors use your site search engine rather than Google’s toolbar (or another search engine’s toolbar).

Assessing the Toolbar’s Impact

The number of toolbar users is hard to come by, but most technically-savvy Web users are using one. While the Google toolbar seems to be the most popular, Yahoo! Search,MSN Search, and other engines also offer toolbars. Any toolbar, not just Google’s, poses the same threat.

A quick check of the news shows that Google (and the other search engines) are working hard to get their toolbars distributed more widely. Google just made a deal with Sun Microsystems to bundle the toolbar with Java, for example. In addition, the Firefox browser comes with a configurable search toolbar that poses the same kind of threat to Web site search as any of the proprietary toolbars.

So, here’s what we know about search toolbar usage:

  • All Firefox users have toolbars already. The latest figures place Firefox’s market share at 14% in the US and 11% worldwide.
  • Many Internet Explorers have toolbars, too. We can only guess at how many of the 80% of Internet Explorer users employ a toolbar, but we can hazard a guess that it’s at least 30%. We also know that toolbar usage will only accelerate as vendors get more aggressive.
  • Soon, all Internet Explorer users will have toolbars. The next version of Internet Explorer (version 7, due early in 2006) will have the same kind of built-in search toolbar that Firefox has.

In short, many users already have a search toolbar, and nearly everyone will in a year or two. As IE users gradually upgrade to IE 7, virtually all browsers will have an omnipresent search capability.

What Can Web Sites Do?

Clearly, search toolbars will make it increasingly easy to abandon your site, but you combat this by improving your site:

  • Diminish the urge to search. Research by Jared Spool shows that clear category navigation reduces user confusion and minimizes their temptation to reach for anysearch button. Visitors who don’t search after they reach your site succeed more(and buy more) than those who do. Improve your site’s navigation and reap the benefits.
  • Make your site search obvious. If visitors can’t find your site search function, you’re just begging people to use the toolbar instead. Put your search at the top of every page and make sure that it stands out.
  • Make your site search easy. Put an actual search input box on every page, not just a link to enter their query on a separate search page. If you make searching your site hard to use, expect your visitors to use their trusty toolbar.
  • Improve your site search results. Good search facilities get used—searchers use eBay’s excellent site search two billion times a month. If you ensure that your site search gives fast, high-quality results, your frequent visitors are more likely to use your search rather than the toolbar’s.
  • Use paid search defensively. Yes, no one is happy to pay Google per-click fees to retrieve a visitor that you had on your site moments before, but it’s better to pay than to lose the sale.
  • Use search marketing offensively. Rather than whining about how much harder the rise of the toolbar makes keeping visitors on your site, look at things a different way. Toolbars also make it easier to steal your competitor’s visitors away from them! If you make sure that your site’s pages are found in Google’s organic results, and you purchase keywords for paid results as well, you’ll steal more traffic from others than you lose to them from your site.

The search toolbar is here and it is already causing visitors to abandon your site more easily than before. Worse, twelve months from now you’ll probably see the great majority of users with toolbars, making them flightier than ever. But you don’t have to curse your bad luck. By improving your site’s navigation, site search, and search marketing, you can get the edge on your competitors.

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Mike Moran

About Mike Moran

Mike Moran has a unique blend of marketing and technology skills that he applies to raise return on investment for large marketing programs. Mike is a former IBM Distinguished Engineer and the Senior Strategist at Converseon, a leading social consultancy. Mike is the author of two books on digital marketing, an instructor at several leading universities, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Society of New Communications Research.

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