How does search engine result highlighting work?

Tom has written about the treatment of IT / it in the search engines before (it is hard for search engines to distinguish between ‘it’ and ‘IT’ when searchers never capitalise things correctly!). Since one of our clients provides IT support, we spend quite a lot of time looking at the results for various IT-related searches and so I have another oddity to share.

In general, when you carry out a search on the major search engines, they highlight the words and phrases from your query in the titles and snippets of the results. In the case of paid search, your search words are highlighted wherever they appear in the advert and URL (among other things, it is this that makes dynamic keyword insertion - where your search query is used automatically in your advert - so powerful).

If you take a real look at a search results page, you will see that this is a very powerful effect drawing your eye to any mentions of the search phrase you used. While the paid search results are carefully crafted to include mentions of the search query, the natural results also tend to (as a result of the relevance element of the engines’ algorithms, and also because they select the snippet they display in part by finding parts of the page with the query string).

Now try a search for it support (google, yahoo, live). Yahoo! gets it pretty much right (as Tom said on his post, they seem to have cracked this particular problem quite well). Live is bumbling along with a clue (apart from the paid results, those look like ‘support’ results to me (including requests for support for charities), not ‘it support’. And Google is interesting:

Keyword highlighting

See the difference between the highlighting in the paid and natural results?

Paid search has realised that IT support is a phrase whereas while the natural results are relevant to IT support (they haven’t got the same issue as Live whereby they effectively discount the ‘IT’ bit), they aren’t highlighting the whole thing as a phrase, but rather just highlight support: IT support.

It’s a tricky problem, and also opens up a whole load of interesting questions as soon as you start thinking about it in a bit of detail...

Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. Will is part...   read more

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  1. I wonder if paid gets the connection because those advertisers have specifically purchased "IT Support" as a phrase. Thus, the highlighting for ads is based on both search relevance and advertiser intent (making that system a little "smarter").

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  2. I'm sure that's how paid search gets it right. I'm a little surprised that natural doesn't - given that they clearly understand that the whole thing is a phrase as far as the results go (unlike live who return results that look very much like 'support').

    I was wondering if they should use the paid search information to feed back into the natural stuff. Do you know of any places where that happens?

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  3. Unfortunately, doing some PPC work for clients, it still feels like voodoo some days; I get caught up in their paranoia that Google is using paid data to manipulate organics and all the usual conspiracy theories.

    I do think that the combination of paid and organic placement can sometimes influence users (i.e. having them see you in both places can reinforce your brand), but on my rational days I don't really see any evidence to support the idea that AdWords activity is influencing organic results. I think Google has been pretty careful on that front, as the risk of damaging the credibility of their organic results is too great.

    You're right, though; it's odd that the organics get it (IT?) wrong. Interestingly, I just did a search for "IT outsourcing", and it doesn't highlight "IT" in either paid or organic (although the paid buying patterns may be different.

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  4. We're trying to do some research into a bit of that for a client at the moment (since they got to #1 for a big kw, they are very interested in whether they should still be bidding the same on paid).

    I'm sure you're right that ranking is not being influenced by paid results, but this kind of data about what is a phrase might be useful (much as paid data can feed into a natural search campaign from our side of the fence).

    That IT outsourcing search is weird - good spot.

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  5. We should compare notes: I've got a client in the same position. They think they should keep bidding on the paid keyword that they've hit #1 in for organics, but I'm concerned about how much they're spending on PPC and how little return they're getting. Unfortunately, I don't have the data to back up either direction very well.

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  6. Tom's the one running the analysis on that our end (we're not expecting to get data on it for a few weeks and everything's a bit screwy due to the time of year) but yeah - we should talk about it. I'll get Tom to drop you a line.

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  7. Thats a really good point we are targeting IT Support in Sydney

    Thanks for the info

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