Can Positive Online Social Cues Always Reduce User Avoidance of Sponsored Search Results?

31 Dec 2019

Information Systems

H. Deng, W. Wang, S. Li, and K. Lim

MIS Quarterly, forthcoming

From humble beginnings back in the late 1990s, online sponsorship has evolved into a key marketing channel. Sponsored search results (SSRs) are prominently displayed in search engines to promote sponsors’ links to products and websites, and are among the most important revenue streams for search engine providers. However, internet users tend to respond negatively toward SSRs in general perhaps because sponsorship undermines the otherwise objective-seeming methodology of search. 

“SSR avoidance reduces the click-through rate of SSRs and challenges the viability of the business model of sponsored search,” says Professor Weiquan Wang of City University of Hong Kong.

User-generated content, such as product reviews and ratings, has become a critical factor influencing online user behaviour and decisions. Many SSRs receive positive reviews and ratings as social cues from prior consumers. The scholarly literature attests to the effectiveness of social influence, regardless of offline or online contexts. However, as reported in 2019, SSRs in Google only received a click-through rate of 3.17% even when social cues are presented alongside the SSRs. 

So, can user-generated content always serve as social cues to reduce users’ avoidance of SSRs when they are concerned about SSRs? Professor Weiquan Wang, and Professor Kai Lim, both of the Department of Information Systems and co-authors examine circumstances wherein positive social cues can alleviate users’ avoidance responses toward an encountered SSR when searching for a product online. Their research focuses on three major types of social cues in online environments. The first two types are related to products, i.e., consumer reviews and ratings about (i) product quality and (ii) product popularity, and the third type is related to sellers, i.e., consumer reviews and ratings about seller credibility.

Wang, Lim and co-authors conducted a series of laboratory experiments. 

“We found that although social cues can increase users’ attention to SSRs, they don’t necessarily boost clicks on them,” says Lim.

“In other words, they are not always effective when presented alongside SSRs.”

Users have various naïve theories about SSRs as a promotional product. Some are concerned about the product quality of the SSR or the popularity of the SSR, whereas others worry about the credibility of the seller. 

“A social cue can increase users’ clicks and improve their affective response toward an SSR when this cue match users’ active concern about the SSR,” Lim added.

This study offers many practical implications for online search service providers to choose and present influential social cues alongside SSRs to facilitate online users’ decision making in their product search process.