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Do you know how searchers behave?

We all know that the searchers on our Web sites frequently find search frustrating—it’s simply a more difficult task than most things they do with computers. Because we are all searchers, we can recognize our customers’ thought process when searching, which helps us to design our sites around that knowledge. We all recognize the search pattern: enter a few keywords, see the search results, choose a result to click, and find your answer. There’s just one problem with this simple scenario. It hardly ever happens.

The keyword-result-click scenario is the ideal one. It is the one we keep in our heads when we design our sites. But it is not the way searchers actually behave most of the time.

We need to break out of the tunnel vision that skews our understanding. We need to view the world as our customers do, which is quite difficult. After all, we are experts in the information on our Web sites. We know exactly what words to search for. We know where everything is. It’s terribly hard to forget what you know and look at your site with fresh eyes. But that’s what we need to do.

We must also forget all the analogies to looking up information in a library. All the behavior that people applied to card catalogs and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical literature has no application here—when people search, they revert to much more basic human instincts.

Searchers are foragers. They are berry pickers. They are basically using the behaviors hard-wired into all of us to hunt for food. Research first conducted at Xerox PARC (and validated in numerous studies) show these behaviors time after time.

Searchers do not follow the straight line path of the ideal searching scenario—instead they follow the “scent” they are after. A searcher has a few words in mind when looking for something. The searcher types a few of these words into the search box and keeps a few others in mind that are not typed. The searcher scans for these words in the search results and in all the pages viewed in a hunt for information. The searcher follows the “scent” of these words to lead toward the goal, the answer—the mind food.

And like any good forager, searchers are always balancing the amount of effort to capture the food with the value of the food itself. Searchers that are both hungry for information, and believe the information will be very good, work much harder to get that information. So, if your site looks like it has the information needed, and it looks like that information will be easy to find, searchers will try harder to find it.

But not that hard. Because foragers are constantly making new decisions every minute. They don’t plan three clicks ahead. At any moment, a berry picker could decide that the berries left on this bush are too high to be comfortably reached, so they move on to the next bush.

Imagine a searcher at Home Depot’s Web site searching for “fan”—when a group of ceiling fans are shown, the searcher realizes that the keywords should have been “bathroom fan.” Then, a series of bathroom fans are shown, but they are the wrong color. Maybe the searcher notices that they come in multiple colors—perhaps the searcher adds the color to the growing list of keywords and searches again.

Or maybe the searcher abandons the Home Depot site.

Searchers can abandon the site at any moment to shop at a competitor. They can traipse back to Google to search more broadly. This winding trail is the typical behavior of someone seeking information. This isn’t Home Depot’s fault in this case; they may have a perfectly good search facility. But this is the true state of searcher behavior.

Just 34 percent of site searchers find what they are looking for, with 47 percent of those that failed trying only one search query before abandoning the attempt. That tells us they can’t detect the scent of what they seek, so they are moving down to the next berry bush.

Throughout the information finding experience, searchers are looking for the confidence that they are making progress toward their food. A study by usability expert Jakob Nielsen found that 40 percent of e-Commerce site searches yielded useful results (that the searcher explored further), 37 percent caused searchers to search again, with the remaining 23 percent of searchers abandoning searching to try a different finding strategy that they decided was better at the moment. That’s what information foraging is all about.

You can’t change searcher behavior, but you can change your search engine. If your Web site search isn’t all you want it to be, you can try a simple, free search engine to see if it works any better for you.


Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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