Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Primacy Myth Of Search

Added on by Tom Webster.

There are certain bits of received wisdom about the role of search in the purchase process. If I were to ask you, for instance, what percentage of purchases "started" with a search, what would you guess? Two-thirds? More? There is no doubt that search plays an important role in purchase behavior, and there are a crapton of clickstream-based studies which demonstrate that search is involved in the majority of online purchases. It is, however, a far different thing to say "is involved in" than it is to say "instigates." Consider this: we meet at a conference somewhere, and you ask me where I got my snazzy blazer. I tell you it's a Kroon, and that I got it at Nordstrom. Now, because we are talking in real life, I don't have a affiliate link to give you--I simply show you the label.

So, you go back home and Google/Bing/Lycos/Altavista "Kroon Nordstrom." Your clickstream consumer journey started with search, but your actual consumer journey did not. In fact, in this all-too-common scenario, search was merely a commodified utility; a handy link shortener to quickly access the page you already knew you wanted.

Now, this is not to say that search is unimportant; nor is it to belittle the importance of SEO. In fact, had I told you that my blazer was a Kroon, but NOT that I bought it at Nordstrom, it would have been Nordstrom's SEO prowess that would have led you to buy the blazer from them, and not from another retailer. But you were still going to buy a Kroon, and search had nothing to do with that decision.

So, I am not challenging the importance of search, merely the primacy of search. What I suspect is this: the more purchase risk, the lower the importance of search (and, of course, the converse would necessarily be true.) If I need a VGA dongle for my MacBook, search might be the beginning and end of my consumer journey. But if I want a snappy blazer to go with jeans, a gas range, or a Ph.D., search may be part of the process, but it might serve as little more than a helpful road sign for a destination I already had in mind.

In our most recent Social Habit report, we actually collected some data on the consumer journey and the roles of search, social and word of mouth in that process. Here's a sneak peek at some of the data we are sitting on:


When we asked a representative national sample of 3,000 American social media users, ages 12+, what they turned to first to learn about a product or brand, "Search" had a plurality but nowhere near the majority of responses. The global take-away from this graph? Seven in ten social media users in America start their consumer journey somewhere other than search. Search may play a role, deeper into the funnel, but social media users are more likely to begin with word of mouth (either online or offline).

Other aspects of these data worth noting: first, don't abandon those company websites yet--after search, those are the most common starting point--and also, note the 7% of social media users who indicated that their consumer journeys start with social media. Don't be fooled into thinking that's a "small" number--it isn't--and don't forget: the question refers to what source social media users turn to first. Other data we have in the latest Social Habit report indicates that social does indeed play an important part of the consumer journey--but that role may not be at the top of the funnel.

That fact alone should dramatically inform your marketing strategy and significantly alter your tactics, especially if your brand involves a high-risk purchase, and you are using social media to generate awareness.

What do you make of this graph? And what are your thoughts about the role of search in purchase behavior?