The Rise of Guided Search and Autocomplete

In a recent article "The Rise of Organic Search", writer Brian Bridges of Lumentus pointed out that "majority of every company’s website traffic now comes through organic search". While this might not be news to hardened SEOs, it raises a couple of important points related to autocomplete, which I call guided search.
  • The first is that there is a decline in the hit rate on destination sites; places where you know the URL and type it in directly to the address bar;
  • The second is an anticipated rise in finding brands and companies by sentiment and intent rather than by a purely factual search query.
Explaining these phenomena is not trivial, but has its roots in the advent of autocomplete, a feature offered by virtually all search engines.

What is Autocomplete?

Autocomplete is a deceptively simple service: it merely suggests search terms that the user might be about to type based on previously used search terms, and the user's own input.

However, one has to wonder what the proportion of autocomplete to organic search actually is. 

While Google doesn't provide any statistics, autocomplete behaviour coupled with the claim by Bridges that "77% of users only click on the first three links" of a results page, could well be distorting true organic search in favour of something I call guided search.

The Rise of Guided Search

There are two places that Google (for example) suggests keyword phrases for users to pick as their search term.

The first is in the box that appears under the search term box, and is a result of typing a term into that edit field. This is the traditional autocomplete or auto-suggest location.

Users can simply click one that was either the term they were looking for anyway (the convenience argument), or pick one that looks interesting. The latter is an example of guided search, and it comes with the risk of contamination of the user's original intent.

The other location is under the first set of (usually 10) results, as a double-column wide list of suggested searches, which the user is free to pick from. Again, this could be argued as helpful, or convenient, but is also a good example of a guided search.

It's the same for retailers such as Amazon, who routinely suggest extra items that the customer might be interested in: that could be termed "guided shopping".

Why is this Important?

Guided search, at its worst, leads to a kind of mob mentality when it comes to finding online resources.

It's a feedback loop of sorts, rather like the kind of feedback loop you get when you use only those keyword phrases identified in your log files to create new content. It's only a matter of time before two things happen:
  • you start to repeat yourself;
  • you paint yourself into a (popular) niche.
Guided search suffers from the same issues. The more search users click on the first, second or third proposals the engine makes, the more that engine reinforces its opinion that these are things that people are searching for -- to the exclusion of everything else.

It can't be helped, and the best that we can do is anticipate the effect of guided search by using keyword research.

How Does Keyword Research Help?

If you type in your brand or company name, Google (for example) will suggest various options to elaborate the search, and these options represent queries that have been previously executed by search users.

They can be captured manually, simply by going to the search engine and performing the queries; but it is much more efficient to use a tool such as to reveal en masse the various combinations of keywords that have been used with your brand.

On the one hand, it's a good way to gauge both sentiment and intent by seeing what words are used in combination with the brand, and the brand's product lines.

Alternatively, it 's an excellent way to see what people are searching for, so that you can react to it.

Taking this one step further is the AnswerThePublic service; which specifically links questions, sentiment and intent through matching your root keyword phrase with various question-words (what, where, why, etc.) and prepositions.

Evaluating the results is an important part of maintaining your brand identity and reputation.

To learn more about keyword research, head over to the Keyword Research & SEO Tutorials page, and learn the ins and outs of running complete keyword research campaigns for your brand.