User Behavior In Paid Search

A couple of months ago I made some observations about search behavior that I witnessed first hand. Namely, that people search differently from one another and that these differences might explain conversion rates and traffic volume on different types of keywords.

My wife shops online differently than I do. When she’s looking for a blouse she goes to,,, etc. She doesn’t type urls into the address bar, she searches for the brands by name. She prefers the natural links to the sponsored links.

In general, she searches differently than I do. We raced each other to determine the rest of the famous quote “To be or not to be? That is the question…” I found it on the first click by searching for “hamlet ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy”; it took her 4 or 5 tries on different links that came up when she searched for “shakespeare quotes.”

The question that naturally came to mind was: “Is this why conversion rates on general terms are so low, and why the conversion rates of much more specific terms is so much higher?” We and everyone else who has studied the data have rejected the paid search buying cycle. Indeed the fact that the volume of sales on the general terms is so high indicates plenty of purchase intent.

The conversion rates are low not because of lack of purchase intent, but because the more general the search, the less clear the user’s intent and the less chance there is that the advertiser carries what they seek.

This is a fine theory, and I went on to posit that there were three searcher profiles:

  • Trademark Tracy, who prefers to search by store names
  • Yellow Page Paul, who searches for the category of product or type of store rather than the product itself
  • Modern Mary who searches for exactly what she wants using longer than average phrases

Today, I’ll present some research that suggests we might be onto something.


I took a random sample of retail clients and grabbed every instance in which there were exactly two paid search visits through our ads, and the ads were for two different clients.

By insisting on ads from different clients we remove any biases there may be for people to shop for this particular brand or this particular product category differently than they shop for other categories. Here we’re trying to determine whether people who come through a brand ad for me are more likely to do other searches by navigational searches as well.

We classified search phrases as being either: a “brand” search for our client’s trademark; a “head” keyword search, defined in this case as generating more than 500 visits in a 90 day period; or a “tail” keyword generating fewer than 500 clicks in 90 days.

We then studied the relative frequencies of first search to second search transitions.

To re-iterate: this is not about conversion funnels or buying cycles; these are clicks on ads from two different clients selling different stuff.


The 65,000 instances studied involved 130,000 ad clicks.

The majority of the ad clicks were on middle to low traffic “tail” keywords for this particular sample.

rkg - brand total touches

When we study the breakdown based on what was first touched the results are fairly compelling:

rkg - brand first touches

Note that people who used a brand ad to visit one of our clients are almost twice as likely to visit the other client through their brand ad as well.

rkg - head first touches

When the first touch is a “head” keyword we see a 50% greater likelihood of their next visit to one of our clients being a head them than one would expect, and much less than average likelihood of them using a tail term next.

rkg - tail first touches

Finally, those whose first visit to a client was through a low to mid-traffic tail term are more likely than average to visit the second client through a similarly specific keyword.


Conversion rates may be more a function of the difficulty users have in clearly expressing what they’re looking for than any absence of buying intent. While this cursory pass at the data is less convincing than it could be, it does suggest we may be onto something here.

Love to hear what others think!

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Scientist of RKG, a technology and service leader in paid search, SEO, performance display, social media, and the science of online marketing. He also writes for the RKG Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @georgemichie1.

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  • Lulu

    Thanks for sharing these insights George. I’ve been testing a similar hypothesis and have been surprised by the results. I’m interested to hear about your next steps in refining your theory.
    Lulu Gephart

  • George Michie

    Hi Lulu,

    Thanks for your comment. I’d love to hear about your findings.

    I actually spoke with Hal Varian at Google today about our research. He was interested and indicated it wasn’t something they had looked at yet.

    Seems to me that if Google knows their are people who aren’t skilled at expressing their intent, perhaps the search functionality could be tailored to their skill level, offering more drill down options where appropriate. Eg: “You searched for “furniture”, are you interested in: outdoor furniture, living room furniture, bedroom furniture…”

    Not actually sure what the “take away” action-items are from the research, other than chin scratching at this point.


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