What matters more for online retailers: display advertising or search? It’s likely not an either or answer, but it’s a question that has been the subject of an ongoing debate in our comments section this week.

I wrote this post after reading an AdAge article that implied search only accounted for 10% of traffic sent to online retail sites. Abby Klaasen wrote:

“Nielsen found the majority of retailers’ web traffic (61%, on average)
comes from people going directly to a retail site — consumers typing,
say, Amazon.com into a browser address bar.”

The idea that only 10% of traffic would be driven by search was new to me, and we asked our readers to weigh in with their own experiences. Many were surprised and confused by Nielsen’s numbers (and there is a ton of information in those comments for anyone interested in the subject).

I spoke with Kenneth Cassar, Nielsen’s VP of industry insights, to get some clarification. And as always, it turns out that context is key with these numbers.

For starters, those of you who argued that search drives far more than 10% of traffic to online retailers were not wrong. Nielsen took traffic results from the top 200 retail sites, meaning
that searchers were already more familiar with those companies than the majority of online retailers out there.

According to AdAge, the 9.5% of traffic driven by search probably “included a good chunk of
people conducting navigational searches — typing Zappos into the
search bar rather than searching for types of products (shoes) or
product attributes (comfort footwear).” 

That means that people already knew where they were going when they got to the search engine. How could that be? Well, among the top 200 retailers, traffic numbers were heavily weighted toward the top three retailers: eBay, Walmart and Amazon.

To say that results for those three companies would not be typical of other retailers is an understatement. But Cassar tells me that these numbers are not meant to be generalized to all retailers, but for these specific retailers to compare their efforts against what their competitors are doing.

“It’s a very different story if you’re a small retailer.”

And Cassar says that the referrals attributed to search in this study are not an exact science either:

“If we went with a looser definition, something like ‘where were they immediately before they came to the site?’ the number would have been twice as high.”

Furthermore, search is once again beholden to the fact that it’s easier to track than other formats. Display advertising got conflated with other factors because it’s harder to monitor. Says Cassat:

“We don’t call it a display number — we call it a ‘third party/ other bucket.'”

But these details do not invalidate Cassar’s larger point — that display is often overlook in favor of search:

“I believe that retailers in particular and commerce players more
broadly are overlooking the importance of brand and have become a
little too myopically focused on search.”

Cassar thinks that getting a debate started will help fix some of the disparaties between search and display for retailers. And some of his comments are definitely debate sparkers. Like this one:

“There’s value to brand building and with most retailers that I talk to, they ascribe no value whatever to brand building.”