You can tell a lot about someone from their search  history. We turn to search engines for simple directions, suggestions for what to buy, and answers to burning personal questions. What we search for online – and the language we use to do so – produces a web of data that is a behavioural insights goldmine for marketers.

Marketing imperatives

  • Assess all the keywords in your search portfolio and score them by how concrete or abstract their language is.
  • Respond to abstract keywords with ads that are relevant to those who are early in the consumer journey, and respond to concrete keywords with ads that lead more directly to purchase or other actions.
  • Use insights from search to personalise communications across all channels.

Brands are not making the most of the hidden signals of digital behaviour to understand the human being behind the click. We recently conducted research with Northwestern University and Microsoft to look at what search language tells us about consumer behaviour and how it correlates to consumer intent.

This research shows that the specific words people choose to use in online search tell us how far   away they are from clicking that ‘purchase’ button. There were three main results.

Consumers search in abstract language when they are further away from taking action and more concrete when they get close to action

Participants in our study who were actively seeking to buy used language that was 15% more concrete than participants who were simply browsing.

When consumers search in abstract language, they are more likely to click on ads and landing page experiences that are also abstract

When participants who used an abstract search term (e.g. “best”) were shown both an abstract and a concrete ad, they were 17% more likely to click on the abstract ad. This is a close match to the behaviour of those who identified themselves as browsing with no purchase intent, who were 20% more likely to click on abstract ads.

When consumers search in concrete language, they are more likely to click on retailer or brand sites

Participants who used concrete queries (e.g. “shop”) were 135% more likely to click on retailer search results. Again, this is close to the behaviour of self-identified active shoppers, who were 180% more likely to click on a result emphasising the word “shop”.

So search query language uncovers consumer signals that can inform media planning and optimisation in search marketing and beyond. To engage consumers, brands must provide highly relevant experiences that stand out in the crowd. Understanding psychological distance to action empowers brands to meet consumers where they are in the consumer journey.

We used the results of this research to create our Intent Scoring Algorithm, which codes every single search query in an advertiser’s account based on the level of its concreteness, mapping consumer mind-sets and recommended media experiences. We have applied this to live campaigns, and the subsequent increase in click-through rates has proved that consumers respond to relevance.

Consumers will continue to search for their needs and wants across a variety of platforms, including search channels (like Bing), commerce sites (like Amazon) and social platforms (like YouTube). Brands that listen to consumers’ hidden digital signals will be able to personalise their communications more effectively, and therefore convert intent into revenue.

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