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Understanding The Online Decision Process: Open Web Research

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Understanding The Online Decision Process: Open Web Research

Open Web Research allows you to observe your target customers as they naturally explore the Web and search for information about your product or service. As you ask them key questions along the way, you gain insight into their motivations, behaviors, likes and dislikes on the Web. This information can be used to inform branding, marketing and search strategies, as well as provide insight into your competitors and identify best practices in your space. In this article, we will describe how Open Web Research works and provide examples of the types of insights gained from this type of survey.

Goals and Objectives

Typically, Open Web Research is conducted to meet the following goals:

  • Identify target audience expectations and motivations when conducting online research for a particular topic or product
  • Learn how users search or browse the Internet for the information – where they start, what keywords they enter, how they navigate from one domain to the next, which sites they prefer, which features / functionality and resources they find useful, high dwell pages, etc.
  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of competitive websites and identify how to most effectively differentiate oneself
  • Determine what features / functionality and content are most effective at attracting and retaining site visitors
  • Identify areas of unmet needs among target audience across a competitive landscape

While this Open Web Research can be conducted in most industries, the most common are:

  • Pharmaceutical
  • Retail
  • Consumer Products
  • Automotive
  • Travel
  • Technology
  • Mobile
  • Financial

Detailed Methodology

Target Audience

Typically, the target audience for Open Web Research falls in one of two categories. It either mirrors your current customer base because you want to understand more about them in order to increase your market penetration, or you may have developed a profile of a customer you do not yet have, but would like to acquire. Sample sizes for this type of study are larger than many online evaluations in order to gain statistically significant data on the sites visited by users. Recommended sample size is a minimum of 300 users per major segment.

Study Design

The design of an Open Web Research study differs from most typical online studies. While you may include some basic introductory questions to understand the demographics or profile of a user, you want to minimize the number of questions about users’ awareness and usage of sites. This ensures that you have not biased them when they naturally explore the Web during the main task of the study: the Open Web task.

This task is designed to understand how users use the Internet to research or find information about a company, product or service. Users begin the Open Web task on a blank Web page and are given instructions on what the intent is of their search. For example, “Use the Web to research the symptoms and treatments for Asthma.”

While users complete their task, they are asked questions that help uncover their motivations and experience. First, users are probed about their motivation to begin their research at a particular site. Was it in their favorites? Was it top of mind? Do they need to turn to a search engine to determine where to go?

As users move between subsequent sites, they will be asked to assess their experience on the site they left: What did they like and dislike? How would they rate their satisfaction with the site and what it offered? Would they return to the site or take other action? And what are they hoping to find on the next site they visit? This detailed questioning paired with the behavioral data provides a complete picture of each user’s Web experience – we can understand not only where they went, but why they went there and what they thought of each site they visited.

Following the Open Web task, users are often taken to the client site if they did not visit it during their natural exploration. They are then instructed to conduct the same task that they completed during the Open Web task, but this time on the client site. The same questions about likes and dislikes, satisfaction and calls-to-action are asked to provide a detailed comparison between the client site and the others visited within the Open Web task.

Analysis and Insights

Following the fielding of an Open Web Research project, intensive data analysis begins to first tie the behavioral data to the comments and ratings given on each site visited, and then to determine how users browse the Internet in their search for information. The final step is to understand how all the sites visited perform in terms of satisfaction, ease of use, calls-to-action, etc.

Examples of the insights derived include:


Based on this analysis, recommendations will be made on how to attract users to the client site, such as search engine optimization, partnerships, branding, etc. Additionally, recommendations as to the usability and content of the client site will be made in order to assist in retaining current customers, while also gaining potential customers through new acquisition activities. The result is a stronger Web presence, targeted marketing efforts, improved site content to drive call-to-action and an understanding of how to better position your site among the online competition.

Example of Recommendations / Impact

  • Helped a pharmaceutical company understand what content and functionality are most critical in driving prescription requests and drug compliance
  • Guided a travel company to understand how to position itself in search results and whom to partner with
  • Determined how branding was impacting a retailer’s market share and how to reposition the brand to retain customers

For more information on Open Web Research, download our Open Web Research Overview or contact us with questions!