The Battle between Bought and Earned Rankings on Google
There’s a war going on, right now, on one of the most hotly contested battlefields of digital advertising – the Google Search Results Page (SERP). How you choose to fight for share of voice is one of the most difficult strategic decisions facing digital marketers. Should you buy your way to the top with paid search or do you ‘earn the right’ to be there through consistent best-in-class SEO techniques? Or can you exploit one of the growing pack of new features on the Google interface, like ‘featured snippets’?
Our most recent research study – we eye tracked over 60 consumers on more than 400 search tasks and forensically analysed the results – suggests that a mix of all three strategies is likely to give you the best chance of success. What’s more, there are clear differences in how searchers browse on mobile and desktop. You need to accommodate different search behaviours by device in your search strategy.
What gets the lion’s share of attention?
Aggregating all the results, regardless of sector, shows clearly how attention dwindles as consumers reach further down the page to find what they are looking for. When the SERP was more of a ‘ten blue links’ environment, several studies reported an ‘F shape’ to consumer attention, but with so many extra features now, the rule no longer applies.
Certain features that are search-specific, such as Featured Snippets or Google Shopping thumbnails, exert a powerful influence on consumer attention. When researching river cruise search terms, for example, a Featured Snippet for Viking Cruises appeared consistently, and significantly influenced our respondents to favour the Viking organic result, which most often appeared directly beneath the snippet. This was even more apparent on mobile devices, where the snippet is very prominent.
Google Shopping results appeared for all our e-commerce search tasks including men’s and women’s fashion, furniture and soft furnishings searches. These either appeared as a ‘nine-pack’ to the right on desktop, or as a carousel of images across the top on mobile and sometimes on desktop. Whenever they appeared, 100% of our mobile searchers and 71% of our desktop searchers at least glanced at the Shopping results. In many search journeys they won, or at least influenced, the first click.
Shopping thumbnails are especially effective for more ‘open-minded’ searchers – consumers who did not, at that point, have a preferred brand in mind. In some, we saw a behaviour of browsing to the foot of the page and then back up, to click on a Shopping result.
What wins the click?
Winning that all-important first click is a tough task…and it is immensely difficult if you are a little-known, challenger brand!
On average, across all the sectors we studied, searchers looked for trusted, familiar brands on 4 of every 5 occasions. Yes, you heard right! 80% of search journeys in our study resulted in a first click to a brand that the consumer already used, trusted or had heard of.
In searches where brand was less important, such as when looking for insurance, local restaurants or hotels in an unfamiliar city, consumers opted to use their preferred aggregator brand to assist them – Moneysupermarket, TripAdvisor or Booking.com.
This became such a consistent theme in our research that we coined a phrase for it – The Brand Familiarity Factor.
In most sectors, what won the first click was the result that the searcher trusted, had used before, or was familiar from the High Street, TV or other advertising channels. Brands like ASOS, M&S, Next, Debenhams and Top Man punched above their weight in fashion-related searches. Holiday and cruise searchers looked to familiar brands like Thomas Cook, Virgin, P&O and Royal Caribbean.
And in health-related searches, the NHS and trusted brands like Bupa dominated the click results.
Is there no hope then for challenger brands?
Well, not quite.
On average, 20% of our searchers did click on an unfamiliar brand, most often attracted by the content of the PPC ad or Organic link content. And with 3.5 billion searches every day on Google, that’s still a very big pool to fish in!
What’s more, the proportion of these ‘open-minded searchers’ increased when asked to search for products and services that they had not bought or used before. In these kinds of searches, the average time spent searching increased too, as you can see below:
Searching for a new or unfamiliar product leads to a more considered search journey, and a more careful assessment of the results that Google presents. This finding was consistent across both desktop and mobile search journeys.
We also saw some evidence that ‘second-click searchers’ will reconsider unfamiliar brands if their first-choice website doesn’t satisfy their needs.
Bought or Earned?
At first glance, the metrics in our study seem to confirm what many previous studies have found. On average, across all sectors studied, Paid Search (including Shopping where present) accounts for 25% of the clicks and ‘Organic’ results earned 75%.
But the Organic results were not just the ‘ten blue links’…
…they included Featured Snippets, Knowledge Graphs, Google Maps, Image Packs and a variety of other features, depending on the type of search.
And intriguingly, a small but significant minority of our searchers resorted to other tabs within the Google interface, and especially the Images tab, to help them find what they were looking for. In a subsequent article, we will talk more about how to cater for ‘visual searchers’ but for now, it is worth considering how you might tag your images to rank well on the Google Images.
Strategies for Search Success
While trusted familiar brands might be taking the biggest SERP share of voice, our research demonstrates a range of tactics that you can employ to ensure you can earn attention and clicks.
Over this series of articles, and in our new white paper on the full results of this landmark study – The Secret Life of Search – you will learn how to make the most of your Paid and Organic search marketing…how to win the battle for first click…how to attract more eyeballs to your copy…and much more. With findings from more than 40 search terms and 100’s of search journeys, no matter what your market sector, you will uncover strategies for search success. Download your free copy here!