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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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Looking Back At Six Years of Asking Why

This week was a pretty momentous one for me. I’ve changed gigs. I’m now an employee again. A big, public company now signs my paycheck. And, up to now, that company, YPG, has made most of their money by publishing phone books. The acquisition of Enquiro is part of a much bigger digital strategy for their future. It’s one I’m very excited about. But today, rather than looking forward, I’d like to look back, about six years back. It was when I first starting asking why.

What’s in a name?

I’ve been doing search optimization since 1996. In 1999, I decided to make a business of it and formed, together with a friend named Bill Barnes, a company called Search Engine Position. The name, while not terribly creative, was at least accurate. We positioned client’s sites on search engines. In 2003, we changed our name to Enquiro. Enquiro, for those that don’t know, is a variation on the Latin term inquira, which means to ask, examine or search for. Inquira.com wasn’t available, so I started swapping letters until I found a domain that was available. Enquiro.com was the first available domain that came up. A quick search on Google turned up no matching results. Enquiro it was! By the way, a search for Enquiro today turns up about 25,000 results.

I originally picked the name because it meant “search.” But one of the other definitions actually proved to be prophetic. “To ask” became a personal passion for me. The older I got, the more curious I got. And because my business card read “CEO”, I dragged my company in my wake.

My First Question

The first question was a natural one for a search agency. We’d been doing search for a number of years. In 2004, paid search was becoming a bigger and bigger deal. It was right on top of the results. Instinct told me that the position was important. But after searching around, I found there was no empirical evidence to back up my hunch. The first question was pretty fundamental: “How many people click on the paid ads and how many click on the organic results?” No one seemed to know, outside of the engines themselves. We were doing search marketing in the dark.

So, we decided to find out. We started watching how people used search engines. We asked them why they clicked the links they did. And those were just a few of the questions we asked. We got very curious, very quickly.

The first few studies results in a couple of white papers released in 2004: Search Engine Usage in North America and Inside the Mind of the Searcher. They’re still available on our site and are regularly referenced. By the way, the answer to our original question turned out to be 70/30: about 70% of people clicked on the organic links and 30% clicked on the paid links. Every study we’ve done since comes pretty close to those original estimates.

Frankly, we were blown away by the response. We had just created an entirely new thing: search user behavior research. We followed up with the industry’s first eye tracking study (originally done in partnership with DidIt and EyeTools) which discovered F shaped scan patterns and the Golden Triangle. Since then we’ve looked as search usage in China, major markets in Europe and North America. We’ve asked how things like personalized search and real time search results impact user behavior. We’ve explored the impact of brands in search results across a dozen different industries and we’ve even done a neuroscanning study on how the brain responds when it sees products it loves. We’ve asked a lot of questions in the past six years.

It Became Personal

While our foray into research has been great for Enquiro, it’s also been incredibly satisfying for me. I had no formal education in this area. I’m not even sure I could have found formal education. When I went to college, there were no search engines, no internet and barely even computers. So, like most things in my life, I figured it out on the fly. It worked for parenting, why not online usability research?

Here’s the funny thing about our world today: if you are passionate enough about something and passably intelligent, you can become an expert. That’s the way it worked in this case. I just kept asking questions and digging for answers. After awhile, people started to care about what I had to say. I started to find my audience.

Today, six years later, I’ve been fortunate enough to have talked to the head usability people at all the major engines and, I hope, our research has had some impact on what your search experience looks like today. I know it’s had impact on how we market on search engines. Someone once told me that the “Golden Triangle” is the most used graphic in search marketing. I suspect that’s true. I’ve been able to trade insights with iconic thought leaders such as Jakob Nielsen, Dr. Jerry Wind and Jared Spool. Also, I’ve been able to work with a handful of academics, including Dr. Jim Jansen (Penn State), Dr. Mario Liotti (SFU) and the crew at Ball State on some really interesting projects. But perhaps the biggest reward is that I’ve made many friends who share both my curiosity and passion: Gian Fulgoni, Lance Loveday, Scott Brinker, Chris Sherman, Greg Jarboe, Ben Hanna and others too numerous to mention. The bright spot in what can be a grueling travel schedule is the opportunity to connect with one of these friends and spend some time with them.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for me. It’s a new gig, but the reason I took it is that it allows me to keep doing what I’m passionate about, asking questions and digging for answers. That won’t change. To me, how we behave in a digital world is an endlessly fascinating topic. My title may have changed. The company name on my business card may have changed. But I never see the passion about asking questions changing.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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