How we search for stuff: Insights for marketers

If I asked you to find out about something today, maybe booking a restaurant or choosing a washing machine to buy, chances are you would start your journey online at a search engine. That’s why it’s essential that all marketers understand how search engines work so they can optimise their sites and paid for search ads. Interestingly, the big search engines continue to frown on SEO (search engine optimisation) practices as they see it as underhand manipulation of the results generated by their clever search algorithms. But all the while the algorithms exist, smart marketers will continue to seek to influence the results to give their brands the best possible chance of standing out.

A recent study by Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University provides some precious insights into the ways we hunt for information on search engines. I’m grateful to Ani López of Dynamical Biz for translating sections of the study into English. You can read Ani’s summary here and I’ve added some of my own thoughts below.

How people search diagram

One of the key findings of the research was how differently we use search engine results pages (SERPs) according to our search intent. As the above graphic shows, people searching for information like the weather forecast or the phone number of a hospital look at an average of 8.53 items in the organic results, but only 0.64% of the sponsored (paid for) results. Conversely, people looking to complete a transaction like downloading software or buying tickets to the theatre will look at only 4.05 organic results (half as many as informational searchers), but will be prepared to consider 2.20 sponsored results. The overall time spent on informational searches is also greater than transactional searches; as you might expect, when we need to get something done, we tend to get on with doing it.


On top of this, the research shows how transactional searchers spend more of their search time reading the snippet (the extract of text from your site, usually determined by your site’s meta description) than the title compared to informational searchers. For marketers, ensuring that the meta description is really compelling on transactional sites has never been more important.

Eye tracking studies also show how our search behaviour changes with different search types. Notice how in the images below the informational searchers dwell far longer over the central organic search results while transactional searchers spend a greater proportion of their time on the sponsored listings at top and right of the screen. It’s no surprise that the top sponsored listings are most popular taking 79% of sponsored fixations versus just 21% for those in the right hand column.


As Ani concludes, there are few ground-shaking revelations in this research but this serves as a helpful reminder that we need to think about the different ways people search as we plan our search marketing campaigns. Your placement tactics should change according to your desired end action, as well as the investment you put behind organic and paid search listings.

I’ve love to know how these finding compare to your own experience. What do you think marketers can learn from this study?

Further reading: Microsoft Research published the findings of similar results using eye-tracking tools. You can consult it here.

[UPDATE 10 Sept: I’ve made a narrated slideshow of this research now available at]
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