Finding the Needle in the Haystack: Search Strategy

Finding the Needle in the Haystack: Search Strategy

The first challenge facing marketers is reaching their potential customers to be able to sell to them. In the analog world marketers achieved this through advertising – on mass media, on retail shelves, on the road, pretty much everywhere consumers congregated. The only problem with this was that enormous numbers of people were inflicted with advertising messages whether or not they were the intended recipients of the advertising. In addition to bad advertising, this is also a contributory cause to the general dislike that advertising evokes among consumers.
Discovery is the sine qua non of digital marketing. However, wanting to be discovered is a very different thing from being discovered.

Discovery, by definition, is an act of serendipity. In the digital world this serendipity is married to consumer behavior to provide the ‘Eureka’ moment. What queers the pitch though is that when billions of people are in the process of discovering, it is not one Eureka moment, but many millions of Eureka moments creating a clutter that prevents serendipity.

The Haystack – Search Engine Results Page

Consider a common problem that all of us face – fabric stains. While there are a number of products available for removing fabric stains, we are either unaware of them or are unsure of their efficacy. To resolve the issue we turn to Google. Here’s the nub of the problem – Google, had 91,620 search requests in April 2018 for removing fabric stains. Getting seen in this crowd is the challenge. Helpfully, though, Google organizes the results of the search on its results page. This is commonly referred to as the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) list. With such a listing, the Eureka moment becomes easier since searchers can scroll through the listing and determine the listing that is most suited to their needs .

Getting on the right position on the list is the key to being discovered. Typically, Google lists ten items per page of its SERP list. Quite obviously the earlier one is listed, the better are the chances of being discovered. Though Google itself does not publish data on which positions (measured as click-thru rate – CTR )on the SERP listing lead to higher or fewer clicks, others have run experiments and provide this data shown in Graph 1.

AdvertisingAs is apparent from the graph, being earlier in the list has an outsized advantage to being later in the list, even though the results are in the same page.

Quite obviously, it follows that the challenge of being discovered is being present earlier in the list rather than later in the list.

  • Being first on the SERP list generates twice as many click-thrus as being second.
  • Being second on the list generates 40% more clicks than in the third and so on. However, there is no discernible pattern on the rate at which the CTR decreases between successive clicks

Being the Needle in the Haystack – Getting Discovered

Getting on top of the listings is determined by a Google algorithm that keeps changing frequently. This algorithm takes into account many variables in displaying the search results. These are:

Search Intent: Based on factors like time at which the search is initiated, the device, the keywords used, Google calibrates search results to display them on the search results page. The simplest example of this would be a search for restaurants at, say, 1:00 pm from a mobile device. In this instance the Google search results would show a listing of restaurants around the location from which the search has been initiated. Google deduces the intent of the searcher is to find a restaurant to eat and shows results accordingly. A similar search on a desktop device at the same time can show completely different results since the Google algorithm would deduce a different intent.

When the search intent is not clear from the listing, as in say, a search for fabric stains, the Google SERP will show a motley mix of brands that can be purchased in online stores, advertisements from such brands, cheat sheets on stain removal, etc.

Page Rank: This is the secret weapon in Google’s arsenal. Simply defined the Page Rank determines the likelihood that the listed page will serve the searcher’s query. It is determined by the quality of the contents of a web page and the reliability of the content as judged by how many times the page is referenced. Though Google throws up search results in the blink of an eye, the calculations of the algorithm are quite complex which makes it all the more amazing that the search results are served that fast. Obviously, the order in which pages are placed would be based on the propensity of searchers to find what they want quickly. The Page Rank though is used only for organic listings and does not impact on the listing of paid results.

Paid or not paid: One of Google’s revenue sources is the advertising it shows along with its search results. There are many different types of advertising that Google offers. The positioning of search results depends upon these factors. In a significant departure from its previous practice of showing paid search results in a different panel from the organic results, Google now show the paid results along with the organic results too. This further complicates the strategy to being discovered.

Search Strategy: Core to Discovery

Given the above it is clear that search pages need to match searcher’s intents, have a high Page Rank and be aware of the competitive context to be able to top the SERP listings.

Let us return to our restaurant example to evaluate how a web strategy should be constructed for appearing on SERP pages.

On the face of it, the search term, ‘restaurants’, is vague and generic with apparently no handle to determine any of the three factors that would go into building a search strategy. This need not be so.

In the context of restaurants, Google deduces intent based on factors like location and time of search. So, obviously the search page for a restaurant should have its address and location and the times the restaurant is open as minimum content for it to be listed. However, this is not sufficient for achieving a high SERP performance.

In the context of the intent, additional information that will improve the Page Rank would be the ratings of the restaurant, reviews of the restaurant on other credible web sites like Trip Advisor, Zomato, Google Map, etc., that will help the page get a high ranking based on how the Page Ranking algorithm works

In the foregoing case, because of the deduction of the intent, it is reasonably easy to craft the contents of a web page that will get it noticed.

Consider a situation when this is not possible, say, a search at midnight from a desk top computer, when even Google is unable to fathom the user’s intention. In such an event Google will serve a list of restaurants in the neighbourhood of the searcher . There are many sources from which Google can get this data, starting with Google maps to geolocation tags in the web pages of the restaurant. Also, given the ambiguity of intent of the search term, this might be an opportunity for the restaurant to consider a paid listing, so that it appears higher in search results. The cost of such a listing would be negligible given that not many would be searching for restaurants at midnight as they would at 12 noon.

Clearly then, achieving a high position in the SERP is an outcome of aligning content with the searcher’s intent and the Google methodology of ranking to be discovered, and not merely putting up any web page and hoping that one would be discovered. This requires a thorough understanding of the technology that enable search and a significant dose of detailed planning and creativity.

Digital marketers will be well advised to consider the different elements that make up the entirety of the SERP and develop appropriate strategies to be present in the different content blocks, viz filters, sponsored content, paid ads, organic search, maps etc of the SERP.

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