The How’s & Why’s: Searchers and Search Behavior

This is one of those posts I’m writing simply because I wish someone else had written something similar when I was looking for this type of information a few years ago. This is the most current information I can find and is peppered with my own interpretations.




People search in a variety of different ways; 4 are considered here:


A. Four Key General Search Behaviors

One of the most comprehensive studies I found regarding the ways people search was conducted by Enquiro1 a few years ago. They identified four primary ways to explain how people search:


i. Scan-and-Clickers

In general this method of searching involves a quick scan of the top few organic listings, and sponsored listings in the case of a purchase-intent based search (see ‘Why People Search’ below). They do not focus on titles or ad descriptions too closely and are easily led into a click with an average time of 8.5 seconds between SERP page load and click. The objective in most cases is instant gratification, and the most immediately apparent match to their search query intent is likely to be the lucky winner. This group is dominated by young male searchers.


(Note; the advent of the 10 in OneBox local listings has pushed many traditional organic listings below the fold and likely impacts on the ‘how’ search behavior of this target group to a certain extent.)


ii. Step-Scanners

While also dominated by male searchers, this group had a higher average age (42). An initial instant gratification type scan of the top results is undertaken, but if nothing answers the search query intent sufficiently well a second scan is conducted. This scan involves a more considered review of the organic listings on the page including a more thorough review of title and descriptions.


iii. Deliberate Researchers

Dominated by women 3:2, this method of searching involves a careful review of all organic listings prior to a selection and click through. These searchers very often ignore sponsored listings, and are more likely to proceed to the second results page.


iv. 1-2-3 Searchers

This profile of searcher considers each organic listing in detail before moving on to the next. However, unlike the deliberate researcher, they will not necessarily review all listings prior to making a selection. In fact, if they come across a listing that answers their search query intent satisfactorily, they will click through without completing their review, and they may or may not return to the original SERP.


B. Men vs. Women


From the above data we can see that very often men are more likely to scan results, and women are more likely to conduct a more considered and through review of the results.


While this is a generalized conclusion, there are a few points that tend to support it:


  • Women are likely to be the decision makers, or highly influential in the decision making process, when it come to expensive or very important purchases.
  • Women are also likely to be involved in research surrounding the purchase.
  • In fact women buy or influence the purchase of 85% of all products and services sold in the US2.  Combine this data with the fact that women outnumber men online3, and you’ll understand the growing trend towards targeting advertising at women.

As far as search results are concerned, especially if a business is actively utilizing the SERPs to entice potential buyers, it is necessary to ensure a clear and emotive title and description. Both elements need to speak to and answer likely search query intent, and drive the searcher to a highly specific landing page with at least one dominating call to action.


C. Search Query Intent


While this overlaps somewhat with the next primary topic, search query intent definitely impacts on how people search. Andrei Broder identified three primary types of search query intent in his ‘A Taxonomy of Web Search’ including:

i. navigational intent, which involves looking for a particular site which may result in further interaction; e.g. ‘westjet’, or ‘[brand] leather sofas’

ii. informational intent, a broad investigative search requiring no further interaction; e.g. ‘toddler weaning tips’,

iii. transactional intent, a specific search designed to achieve a web-based objective that requires full website interaction; e.g. ‘Yellow pages’ or ‘buy leather sofa online’.

In this case, the importance of how the titles and descriptions are presented, and where they are listed depends on the search query intent.


D. Eye-tracking Studies


I personally like eye-tracking studies, but I usually take the information with a pinch of salt. The full search profile of the sample is usually not publicized (age, gender, ethnic origin etc), and in most cases, the results are skewed by objective behavioral contamination as the sample are aware of the fact that they are being studied. In many cases the sample has no interest in researching or purchasing any given search topic.


Nonetheless, eye-tracking studies are enlightening, and in general lead researchers to a viable conclusion and affirmation of the traditional F-shaped heatmap 4…. Until recently when the advent of universal search including imagery turned everything topsy-turvy5.


The inclusion of images in the search results is having a significant impact on traditional heatmaps as the searcher’s eyes are drawn immediately to the imagery on the page. What this holds for the future is uncertain, but as image search is itself becoming more and more important, I strongly recommend that all images on a web page be fully optimized for both search and usability.




People have many different reasons for conducting a search. In general the primary reasons include:


A.  Research


i. General non-transient research, for example – I want to find a few great blogs on child rearing, so I’ll search, check out a few, come back and try again.


ii. Non-general non-transient research, for example – I want to find a specific supplier of office products that I can return to on a regular basis.


iii. Specific non-transient research, for example – I’m looking for information on online marketing and will continue to do so.


iv. General transient research, for example – I’m on a downer and want to find blogs that I can relate to.


v. Non-general transient research, for example – I have very limited time and I need to find a list of service sites that I may or may not return to (e.g. new telephone or internet supplier).


vi. Specific transient research, for example – I’m on a downer and need a rehab center


B. Purchase


I don’t want to bore you by reiterating the transient vs. non-transient query intents, so I’ll just focus on the following:


i. General non-specific non-immediate purchase intent, for example – I am interested in looking at available used cars online.


ii. General specific non-immediate purchase intent, for example – I am interested in finding used SUVs online.


iii. Specific non-immediate purchase intent, for example – I an interested in finding a used Dodge Caravan 2004 or younger online.


iv. General non-specific immediate purchase intent, for example – I need a home computer.


v. General specific immediate purchase intent, for example – I need a home PC with office programs installed.


vi. Specific immediate purchase intent, for example – I want an Apple MAC with QuickTime 7.


C. Social and Brand


Brand purchasers are not as rare as one might imagine. Brand purchase behavior can however be difficult to predict. To some people it is important to be seen to be visiting or attending certain functions commensurate with their self-esteem. Big brands offer this social ratification, even if just as a conversation point.


i. General non-immediate brand query; for example – Hilton Hotel.


ii. General immediate brand query; for example – Hilton Hotel Room May 2008.


iii. Specific non-immediate brand query; for example – Wedding Hilton Las Vegas.


iv. Specific immediate brand query; for example – Wedding packages Hilton Las Vegas June 2008.


3. Search Abandonment


  • 90% of users abandon the search after the first page 6.  
  • An alternative view lends itself to the fact that 90% of searchers abandon the results after the first 3 pages 7.


There are no real studies to support or dispute either view point. I am going to go on record to say that if the search results answer a search query intent on the first two pages, assuming ten results or less per page, that it is highly improbable that any significant number of people will progress further on the initial search query.




As with all marketing, effective search marketing involves a thorough understating of both your subject and your target market. In the case of search marketing, due to immediate result display, the need to answer search query intent via your online offering (assuming you are in the top 20 listings) is imperative.


That does not mean you are no longer responsible after click through. If you have any influence as a search marketer, you need to ensure that the landing page answers the search query intent in content, design, navigation and conclusion. If your client chooses to ignore your recommendations, you have shown due diligence; if you do not include the post click marketing recommendations, you may be considered negligent.



1. Enquiro / WebProNews


3. eMarketer


5. SearchEngineLand

6. Questio Verum

7. iProspect


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