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The role of search engines in consumer buying behaviour

Online marketing can be a highly accountable form of advertising if you use a good web stats package and, with the use of some more advanced technology, it can also become a powerful form of direct marketing. Like any marketing spend, however, you ideally need to track the responses to each activity to measure the cost-effectiveness and, specifically, to compare the return on investment (ROI).

The pay-per-click element of search engine marketing can provide some excellent tracking data, particularly through the main tools on Google AdWords and Overture, where tracking code can be used to measure the leads generated or sales converted from each individual search term.

This accountability is something that can't be replicated so well through natural search engine rankings, although if both are run alongside each other, certain assumptions can be made or different tests undertaken. Ultimately, the natural listings should generate a better return on investment over a longer period and, whenever this can be measured, it can undoubtedly help to support and refine the ongoing search marketing strategy.

But should these listings - whether sponsored or natural - be measured by clicks alone? Research on 2004 by the IAB in the US reported an element of brand recognition within sponsored listings, even if web users didn't click through to the site itself. This impact is unlikely to be as great as more visual banner advertising, but it is still a factor to be considered.

There is also a general consensus that search activity online can lead to offline sales or even latent sales conversions that may not immediately be picked up within any response tracking. Research published by comScore at the end of 2004 reported on the results of a survey made with Internet users looking to buy electronics and computer products on a major search engine.

Using a combination of online behavioural observation and consumer survey data, the study found that a quarter of all searchers eventually bought a product and that 92% of these occurred offline, so that for this type of market there was clearly a large element of price comparison searching being undertaken.

Of the 8% who did buy online, none of these occurred immediately after clickthrough, but 15% did happen during the same user session. However, the remaining 85% of conversions occurred in a latent or non-search session, such as when users may have returned to a site at a later date through another route, or perhaps bookmarked the domain for future use after having conducted further product or price research. In total, 40% of all the purchases took place between 5 and 12 weeks after the initial search took place.

This survey makes interesting reading but clearly the results are determined by the type and cost of products being purchased. Low-cost items like books, CDs or even flowers are likely to show a different pattern of sales conversions over time, although in these cases, more regular sales from returning loyal customers will also be important in calculating the cost-effectiveness of the initial activity that obtained the customer in the first place.

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