Brits Don’t Understand Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

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  • December 16, 2008

Via Mel & The Guardian comes news that the British public (or at least the 1,636 people with enough spare time to fill in the online survey) isn’t aware of search engine optimisation as a marketing tactic.

Nearly 1 in 4 Britons (24%) believe that the order of the search listings they use cannot be influenced by the publishers of websites listed, whilst a similar proportion (22%) suspect that results are ordered entirely according to how much has been paid by the websites listed. 1 in 5 consumers (19%) have no idea at all how results are compiled, and 5% believe that search listings are arranged completely at random like a lottery.

Now I don’t want to be controversial here but let’s examine the facts.

22% of people think results are ordered according to how much the sites have paid to be listed. I can see how when you search for “car insurance” that could reasonably be the case – lots of sites would happily pay to be featured in those results.

But what about when you search for “green widgets with blue add ons” do these people seriously think the resulting websites have paid to be listed for this query?

Jack Schofield comments:

Of course, if you started compiling a list of things that lots of Brits don’t understand, you’d be busy for some time. It’s also not clear that understanding how search engines work has much practical value if you just want to find sites, rather than promote them. However, if I ran a search engine, I’d be looking for ways to make it clearer that organic results, unlike sponsored links, are not paid for.

I’m not quite sure how search engines can make it any clearer. One set of results is labelled “Sponsored Links” and the other set isn’t.

Patrick Altoft

About Patrick Altoft

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events.

  • Geoff Jackson (zigojacko)

    Heh, I find this incredible actually, I do encounter time after time where I will tell people what I do for a living and they don’t have a clue what I am on about. Whereas internet marketing seems to make more sense to them.

    I do like this though, “and 5% believe that search listings are arranged completely at random like a lottery.” Haha

  • sandossu

    In Romania there are a lot of big online business owners that have no idea about SEO and they think it’s ridiculous to pay for it. And I think it’s ridiculous when they go bankrupt, because nobody hears about them, except through the spam emails they sent. It seems that’s the only marketing technique they know about.

  • Ben

    We don’t actually know who was asked these questions but I don’t understand why this is news. I don’t think the average person on the street needs to know how search engines rank sites. Surely all they should be worried about is getting the best results they can, not how to rank one site higher than another.

    • Patrick Altoft

      Ben I think it’s amazing that people like Google can spend so much time making sure their results are as good as possible and 22% of people still think they are just a big list of paid results.

  • Ben

    Patrick – that’s understandable from an SEO’s point of view – but in terms of usability I think you should hide as much complicated stuff as possible. I suspect the people they asked actually have no idea how things are ranked and just picked the “paid results” option in the questionnaire since it sounded the most plausible to them.

  • Adam Lee

    Ben – I completely agree with you. Looking at (the site that conducted the research) the results will be heavily skewed – the demographics for this site show a unique audience of 12k, a 65/35 female/male split, average of lower income earners and average age of 40 plus.
    Looking at those demographic i would say they are probably the worst people to ask about technology or the internet.

    My mum uses Google but doesn’t mean she knows, or cares how it works!

  • kay

    I dont mind being underestimated :)

    Apparently us brits are sluts too.

    I’m off to throw my shoes at a soon to be ex-president…can’t remember his name :)

  • matt mcgowan

    I am thinking they should all come by Search Engine Strategies London to brush up a bit on their know-how… At the very least Expo Pass is free and grants them access to Keynotes, Sponsored Sessions, the Hall itself and some good conversation!

  • Stever

    Those numbers don’t surprise me at all. I’m sure you might see similar results in the US or here in Canada. The average internet user is simply a user. They log on to go find stuff, they don’t need to know how it works, nor do they care, they’re just happy that it works. In fact, a large number of them don’t even know that the PPC links, the ones that even say “sponsored links”, are indeed paid listings.

  • Jordan Pearce

    I know a lot of computer people who have no clue what SEO is so it is not surprising that common folk think search engines work like a phone directory.

  • Gregor Spowart

    Agree with Ben – it depends who they surveyed and at what time of day. Most people probably haven’t put any thought into how the results are listed, nor do they care.

    When asked this question out of the blue they likely just said the first thing that came into their head!

    One of the major things to remember in business is ‘Not everyone knows what you know’ – no matter how simple it is!

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  • MJ Ray

    Search engines could make it much clearer: label one set “paid links” and one set “Chosen by SEARCH-ENGINE-NAME-HERE”. But they won’t do that because people who pay for listings don’t like appearing to pay for listings to John Smith.

    They could also link from besides the “Chosen by …” heading to how they rank sites, but such things seem to be TOP SEKRIT. Most search engines are basically opaque, so is it really surprising that the public don’t see them clearly?

  • Xurxo Vidal

    Just goes to show how much awareness still needs to be brought to search marketing. A lot of people I know outside of the industry still ask me “Search Marketing – What’s that?”.

    Any how many times have I heard the joke when I was still junior in the field and my title was “Paid Search Analyst” – Does that mean you are paid as opposed to an “Unpaid Search Analyst”. Haha what a riot!

  • Mike

    This really is not a surprise to me. The average Joe on the street really does not need to know or understand how search engines rank Web pages. All they are concerned with is knowing how to use the search engine.

    Likewise, with televisions, digital cameras, the Internet and cars for example, few people are actually concerned with the how and why.

    Maybe it would have been more meaningful to survey marketing department staff and CEO’s at mid-sized corporations who rely on the Web for their business. These people should be aware of SEO and how it can benefit them.

  • gabs

    Its a good thing 😉

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  • Lindsay

    I don’t think its just BRITS, i think it is the average public.. Now, if you were talking people in the web design/internet marketing world that dont know a think about SEO, THEN that would surprise me.. But I was just talking to my mom about the website I created for her, and she asked me how much to pay to be listed on the first page, i responded with the right answer, and she thought all along that #1 spot pays good money.. THat is probably close to the same with every other AMERICAN her age that is not involved in internet related businesses..

    WHats the harm if AVERAGE JOE doesnt know that you put lots of hard work, time and effort into getting to #1, or you just paid $1500 to get there. They are STILL going to click mostly on the first page of google for their search..

    I think this might just be a moot point. Its a point, but does it really mean anything?

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  • Laura Godfrey

    I do not agree with this. SEO for anyone can be a challenging thing to understand, not just Brits. The basic principles / standards involved are enough to make you question why are you doing this to your website. I think that instead of penalising someone for not being able to know what they’re doing, there should be better resources and information for people with limited knowledge of SEO. I know a lot of people who work with computers / involved with coding websites and it is more common that they do not understand how SEO truly works.

  • Robin van rijn

    Interesting article. Re-tweeted!

  • vidya

    You can not expect general public to understand SEO. But you surely expect them to think that search engines will have some mechanism to provide the results.

  • Joe

    Heck, from a business standpoint, it’s better that people don’t know how important SEO is.

    It creates a marketplace for companies that specialize in those services.

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