Understanding Search Engines

(Ping! Zine Issue 32) – As our gateways to the Web, Internet Search Engines are the most commonly used websites for the majority of UK web surfers. Fasthosts’ recently conducted research of 1600 consumers that found that 97 percent of those questioned frequently use Internet search engines to find businesses.
Interestingly, there are slight geographical variations in our reliance upon search engines. Some 12 percent of Belfast citizens report having never used a search engine to find a retailer as opposed to only 2 per cent of more search-centric Londoners. In general, consumers were rather in the dark about how search engines work. Some 71 percent of web users are unaware of how search results are compiled.
A main conclusion was that British consumers have significantly more trust in main search results over additional sponsored listings. Paid-for links appear to be viewed by many shoppers with suspicion. 1 in 3 of us (33 percent) believe these listings to be ‘less worthy’ and ‘less useful’ than main search results.
It would appear that Britons know what they like, and they like regular organic search results. Two thirds of web users (66 percent) report that they always pay attention first to main results, and some 40 percent of women and 34 percent of men will consciously ignore sponsored links whenever they appear. Eastern and central parts of England appear the most sceptical towards sponsored listings, with 45 percent of Norwich residents and 43 percent of people from Nottingham refusing to click on them, as compared to only 12 percent from Belfast.
The data would suggest that it has never been so important for UK businesses to be submitting their websites to search engines to be optimising their rankings. There is clearly no worse scenario than investing thousands in a beautiful website that is effectively invisible to the public. However, Fasthosts latest ‘Online Search For Business Survey’ (of 405 businesses with a website) found that many businesses are failing to leverage search engines as well as they should.
On the positive side, this research does suggest that the number of companies submitting their websites to search engines has grown significantly in recent years. The proportion of UK businesses that currently do not submit their websites to search engines has fallen from 68 percent in 2005 and 49 percent in 2006 to only 17 percent today. Furthermore, over two thirds of business owners (69 percent) do recognise that consumers rely upon search engines to find many of the businesses that they use. Companies now appear to understand that inclusion within search engine rankings is important.
However, the data also found that 40 percent of business owners today are unaware of how search results are compiled. Around 1 in 5 owners surveyed (19 percent) were under the impression that the order of search results cannot be influenced by the publishers of websites such as themselves.
Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that 1 in 3 UK companies (35 per cent) still do not make any efforts to optimise their search engine rankings, making their businesses more difficult to find online as a result. When this figure is combined with the 17 per cent still absent from search engines, a very alarming half of all British businesses are not benefiting from ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ (SEO) – a vital commercial practice in 2009. In light of consumers’ undisputed reliance on organic search results, it is remarkable that so many businesses have remained on the sidelines.
In a challenging economic climate, no business can afford to hand over sales to a more clued-up competitor. Fasthosts’ research suggests that widespread confusion amongst business owners over the cost and time involved with SEO could be a possible reason for their neglecting the issue. A third of owners (33 percent) surveyed believe that it would not be possible to implement any optimisation themselves using an SEO tool. 1 in 5 owners (22 percent) believe that it would be ‘challenging’ or ‘impossible’ to achieve any improvement of their rankings themselves.
Furthermore, two thirds of companies (68 percent) over-estimated the cost of optimising their rankings, with 40 percent over-estimating the cost of an SEO tool by at least 3 times. Whilst understandably, many businesses will be reluctant to make large investments, the business case for SEO solutions is impressive to say the least. From only £100 a year, a company can implement a solution that will ensure much improved rankings.
By knowing how and why results are ordered, business owners can far better leverage search engines to achieve sales. With some simple steps, it is very possible for business owners to take control of their search engine optimisation. Today, there are various tools available (such as Fasthosts TrafficDriver) that will submit a business website to hundreds of search engines worldwide and guarantee a Google listing. The tools will also generate detailed monthly reports that can provide excellent insights when defining an online marketing strategy.
Search engines comprise an invaluable link between consumers and businesses. By understanding broadly how Internet search engines function and grasping the basics of SEO, any company can transform their visibility on the Web. SEO comprises an excellent means to reduce marketing expenditure and increase visitor traffic. 
In the coming months, more businesses will turn to the Internet as a swift and cost-effective way to expand their sales and lead generation. In addition to the loud noise of large corporates’ online campaigns, many smaller players will be heard more clearly by optimising their place in search results. Research lends much weight to the theory that SEO should now be a top priority for many UK firms. It could well become their best investment this year.