When it comes to grabbing a user’s attention on the search engine results page (SERP) in order to win that all-important click, a lot of factors are at work.

In search engine optimisation, we tend to focus on ranking – whether it be positions 1-10, or the coveted “position 0” – as one of the most important factors in determining whether your brand will attract search traffic.

But a new study by marketing agency Red C has discovered that brand familiarity may play a far greater role in search click-through rate than marketers have yet realised.

The study, ‘Secret Life of Search’, used eye tracking technology to uncover new insights about how searchers interact with the Google SERP, as well as other relevant features like Google Images, Google Shopping, and Google Maps, when carrying out shopping-related searches.

When asked to perform a research task such as shopping for a party dress or searching for a cruise holiday, 82% of participants in the study selected a brand that they were already familiar with – regardless of where it ranked on the SERP.

The study’s findings lend a new weight to the importance of brand trust, brand recognition, advertising, and other off-site factors when it comes to winning clicks on the search results page. How can marketers adapt their strategies in light of these findings?

The power of brand familiarity

As mentioned earlier on, more than four fifths of study participants (82%) who carried out a shopping-related research task on Google chose a brand that they were already familiar with for their “purchase”. 16% of participants chose an unfamiliar brand, while 2% weren’t able to say why they had chosen the brand they had.

Interestingly, these percentages varied among the three demographic groups that took part in the study: “pre-family” participants, who were younger and had yet to start a family; “family” participants, who had children living at home; and “post-family” participants, who were older and had children aged 18 and over who had left home.

Red C found that the younger pre-family participants were the most likely to choose a familiar brand in their search, with 91% making their first click on a known, trusted brand. Respondents with families were right in the middle, with 84% opting to click on a brand that they were familiar with. And post-family respondents were the most open to buying from unfamiliar brands, with 67% choosing a brand they knew from the search results.

Researchers at Red C noted that a brand’s familiarity was far more persuasive than how highly it ranked on the SERP, with participants willing to scroll down to position 8 or 9 in the SERP to find a familiar brand.

“For example, for the search term ‘king-size duvet covers’, someone clicked on Matalan, which ranked in position 9 in the organic results,” said Diana Agop, Planning and Insight Executive at Red C.

“Or for the search term ‘party dresses UK’, ASOS ranked as the 8th result, and still got clicks.

“Having a go-to brand in mind led respondents to scroll down and look for that specific brand regardless of the ranking.”

Often, when a search did lead participants to click on a top-ranking brand, it was because of the high level of authority and trust commanded by that brand, which also translates into a strong search presence. “For health and dental queries, most of the clicks went to the NHS, which was a trusted source regardless of whether respondents had previously visited that website, and always ranked high up in the results,” said Agop.

“The same was true of the BBC Good Food website: it received a considerable number of clicks in searches for ‘family meal ideas’, owing to the fact that the BBC is a trusted source.”

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The researchers posed follow-up questions to participants to find out what their motivation was for clicking on these brands. Nearly half of participants (47%) said that it was because they were a past or present customer of that brand, while a fifth (20%) said that they trusted the brand. 15% simply said that the company was a known brand, while 9% attributed their decision to the fact that the brand had good UX.

Other motivations included brand advertising (TV and radio – 4%), Google ads (2%) and the search result content itself (2%).

Quick to click

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that searchers who click on a familiar brand in search results tend to do so quickly – taking an average of 10.53 seconds to click on a known brand on desktop, and 9.26 seconds on mobile.

This suggests that searchers are skimming the SERP for brands that they are familiar with, which spells bad news for retailers hoping to compete by having compelling copy or an attractive featured snippet.

This video capture from the study shows how quickly searchers will click on a trusted brand, with a click on P&O Cruises being made in just 4 seconds. Interestingly, the participant skims over a PPC ad for the same brand which is right at the top of the page.

However, all is not lost for brands who want to win over consumers on the SERP – don’t forget that 16% of consumers on average are prepared to click on an unfamiliar brand, with that percentage rising to 27% for consumers in later stages of life.

How does searcher behaviour differ in ‘open-minded searches’, and how can marketers capitalise on winning over consumers when they’re open to persuasion?

The art of click persuasion

Researchers at Red C found that when consumers were searching for a new product or service – such as a holiday cottage, a river cruise, or a nearby dentist – or were looking for inspiration, they adopted a more considered, open-minded approach to their search.

Searchers spent twice as long on the SERP for searches that resulted in an unfamiliar brand being chosen, dwelling for an average of 19.74 seconds on desktop, and longer on mobile – 21.97 seconds. (It’s worth noting that the sample size for these statistics was quite small).

When participants were asked why they chose the (unfamiliar) brand that they’d clicked on, 42% said that they were persuaded by the content of the Google result, while 33% were won over by a PPC ad. Only 25% made the decision based on search ranking – a not-insignificant proportion, but it’s worth noting that ranking wasn’t the main deciding factor for 3 out of 4 searchers.

In one search for “teeth whitening”, for example, the participant clicked on the fourth organic result because of the local area details mentioned in the copy – despite it being some way down a SERP packed with competing options.

A participant hones in on a teeth whitening search result local to Manchester

Searchers were found to go ‘deeper’ into the search results – particularly on mobile – during an open-minded search, and paid more attention to the SERP in its entirety, including the Shopping and Images tabs, and any visual content displayed.

Red C found that the “visual immediacy” of Google Shopping results made them a powerful tool to attract clicks for new or less familiar brand. Searchers looking for familiar brands tended to only click through to Google Shopping if they couldn’t find the brand they wanted on the SERP, whereas searchers who were open to unfamiliar brands used the Shopping tab for inspiration.

The study’s findings reinforce the importance of visual content in searches where shoppers are looking for inspiration – something that visual social networks like Pinterest have built an entire business model around.

How can retailers win more search traffic?

The ‘Secret Life of Search’ study findings show quite plainly how often the battle for search clicks in retail is won before shoppers even get to the SERP.

For retailers, SEO is about far more than just search ranking: it’s about building brand awareness across all channels, and accounting for the impact of those channels on search.

As the study authors write:

“When so many searchers already have a brand in mind when performing this type of search, it’s clear that raising awareness and trust in your brand is an essential part of getting clicks on the SERP.

“You need an integrated approach to be in the frame. So while effective PPC and SEO strategies are key in ensuring your brand is high in the results when a consumer is searching, being in the consideration set in the first place requires marketing away from the SERP.”

Offline (brick-and-mortar) retail presence, an easy-to-use app, and a regularly-mailed database of customers are all factors that can contribute to this awareness – as well as good brand advertising, of course.

Crafting compelling copy

However, when it comes to winning over customers who aren’t wedded to a particular brand, this is when your copy really needs to shine. Organic search presence and PPC ads between them capture 75% of customers who are open to trying a new brand, and these customers are also taking more time to carefully browse the SERP – giving retailers an opportunity to grab their attention with great copy.

The researchers write that, “We saw numerous examples of brands capturing interest simply by taking an original copy stance – ‘zigging’ when others were ‘zagging’ – by featuring an offer or price point, or by headlining a benefit that ‘connected’ with the searcher.”

Some examples of stand-out ad copy from car insurance brands that attracted searchers’ interest.

For example, one female participant who was performing a clothing-related research task observed,

“Yours Clothing came up first in the results, but I wouldn’t necessarily click on whatever comes up first. This one had something in the description that made me feel it’s right for me.”

Learn more about writing amazing copy with Econsultancy’s Marketing Copy 101 Training

Here are some more tips from ‘Secret Life of Search’ for making your search copy stand out:

  • Make your headlines compelling and distinctive
  • Use memorable, stand-out words to interrupt scrolling (particularly on mobile, where people tend to skim quickly)
  • Give specific benefits in the body copy: when a shopper’s click is driven by a budget they already have in mind, or features such as their next holiday destination, they will hunt for words and phrases that resonate with their search objective
  • For PPC ads, illustrating a price or a discount can be particularly attention-grabbing: the study found that price point was one of the most-mentioned copy-related reasons to click on an ad that respondents recalled.

Images worth a thousand words

With that said, it’s not all about text: visual content also plays a particularly important role when it comes to inspiring searchers to purchase from new brands. Many participants reported using the Shopping tab or Google Images to inspire them before continuing their journey on the main SERP, and some habitually used these tabs in order to find new brands to buy from.

Therefore, if competition is fierce in the text-based results, lesser-known brands can get the edge by making sure that their brand has a presence on Google Shopping, and making sure their product imagery is top-quality and well-optimised, in order to capture searchers’ imaginations.

Econsultancy offers search marketing training.