Performics' Esteban Ribero on the Behavioral Impact of Search

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"Search has moved far beyond the traditional search bar," says Esteban Ribero, Senior Vice President, Planning and Insights, Performics.  "While consumers still 'search and click,' search is no longer a channel; it's a behavior."  Further, search has gone beyond just plain text.  "People are searching on their voice-activated assistants like Alexa; they're searching via visual cues on channels like Pinterest," he adds.  His advice for marketers is to "shift the thinking around search from a channel to a behavior," so search becomes a behavioral tool that gives great insights in consumer intentions within exact moments. 

To better understand the behavioral impact of search, Performics partnered with Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications to launch the Intent Lab.  Their latest study, in collaboration with Microsoft, leverages searcher intent from the scale of the Bing search network.

Charlene Weisler:  The Intent Lab's latest study found that search query language can reveal behavioral insights into purchase intent. What were the key findings and were there any surprises for you?

Esteban Ribero:  The level of concreteness of the language in the search queries is a good proxy for the level of concreteness of the mindset that consumers are in, and the psychological distance they are at from accomplishing their goal.  For instance, we found that searchers who are "browsing" (long distance from goal) are 20% more likely to click on search results that emphasize abstract words like "best" while searchers with actual buying goals are 180% more likely to click on search results that emphasize concrete words like "shop."  Searchers who used such queries were also 135% more likely to click on retailer search results, where they could buy in that moment.

The idea that consumers signal their intent to purchase with their search queries is not surprising, but the ability to infer the mindset of the consumer based on the level of concreteness of the search query is a novel idea.  This is allowing us to innovate, creating interesting methodologies and tools to personalize experiences not just to who you are but to what is in your mind and the level of concreteness/abstractness your mindset is at that particular moment.  That's the next frontier of personalization, and we have proved that it works.  When we ran a test and served consumers ads that matched their mindsets, we saw an increase in performance.  For example, when a consumer searched for an abstract term such as "best" and was shown an abstract (vs. a concrete) ad, the consumer was 17% more likely to click on the ad.

Weisler:  Can you include these findings in an attribution model?

Ribero:  We're exploring new applications of the intent scoring algorithm and attribution could be one.  I have always believed in the assistive value of top-of-the-funnel keywords.  Our learnings validate the need to serve relevant experiences at any point in the consumer's journey and the intent scoring algorithm could potentially become a set of weights in an attribution model, so the assistive value of the different keywords used at different stages in the journey can be properly captured.

Weisler:  What learnings can brands take from the study to create ads and experiences that drive more performance?

Ribero:  When we think about search ads, it's easy to think just about keywords.  We found that there is a way to bring to life the human being behind those keywords and design better experiences that match people's intentions so we can really be assistive to them and extract value in the process.

Weisler:  Do you think that, as one does search on Google for example, the suggested search terms they push modifies behavior?  If so, how do you model for that?

Ribero:  People turn to search engines with clear intentions.  They're looking for guidance; they're looking to explore and get inspired.  They're also looking for specific details as they evaluate their options and, of course, they're there to take action such as buying, signing up for a service, finding a coupon, getting directions, etc.  As long as the results are useful and assistive to the searcher, they will influence behavior because providing relevant results will help them do what they want.  It comes down to personalizing the experience by matching content to people's intentions and the mindset they're in at that particular moment.

There is considerable research in psychology that shows that the closer we are to accomplishing a goal, the more concrete our minds become and the more attuned we are to specific and concrete information.  Our research proves that we can identify the mindset that consumers are in by analyzing the level of concreteness of the language they use in the search query.  We can increase the performance of our clients' search ads if we match the level of concreteness of the ad to that of the mindset of the consumer at that moment.  We have developed an intent scoring algorithm to do that so we can provide optimized experiences at scale.

Weisler:  What are your next steps in this area of research?

Ribero:  We're currently exploring ways to investigate this topic beyond the traditional search engine to further embrace the idea of search as a behavior, not just a channel.

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