How to move customers out of the messy middle

Find out how using the right triggers can get customers out of the messy middle and ready to purchase.

The global pandemic saw an accelerated change in online shopping behaviour, with a drastic increase in time spent searching the web. In turn, people's searches proliferated in terms of their query sets – from buying, to researching, asking questions and wanting to know more about (re-) opening times. 

Harry Sumner, Senior Search Director from iCrossing UK explains how a total search approach can help untangle the increasingly ‘messy middle’ of the customer purchase journey. 

An accelerated change in online shopping behaviour became even more prevalent during and following the pandemic, resulting in a drastic increase in time spent searching the web. Building on this, search parameters have proliferated in terms of their query sets – from buying, to researching, asking questions and wanting to know more about (re-)opening times. 

Given the scale of these searches, and the range of intent people have when searching, we recognised the need to explore how to make our clients present across the ecosystem – beyond paid and organic search. This is what we call our Total Search approach. But first, I’ll discuss more broadly behavioural economics theory.

To help understand online shopping behaviour better, Google modelled buyers’ online journeys into an actionable framework, which they called the Messy Middle. Its messiness is based in its behavioural economics foundation, based on the fact that we as humans are not simple in the way we do things – let alone how we buy. 

What is the messy middle? 

The messy middle was born from Google’s study which theorised that once people have been triggered to search for something, they’re always in the market to buy the product, with the conversion reliant on the user getting the right nudges. This of course challenges the historic marketing funnel, but in its favour this messy funnel was supported by a sturdy experiment to validate the thinking.

You can find it visualised here:

To explain what each of these stages mean:

  • Exposure – what people see day-to-day that builds connection to a brand

  • Trigger – an event that led an individual to search for something (likely offline)

  • Exploration & Evaluation – a process of expanding understanding of a brand’s offering against another in a process of refining who they see as the right fit

  • Experience – historic background exposure such as products they have previously bought

Messy middle’s experiment data rationale

In 2020, Google commissioned a study of several hundred hours of video playback of shopping tasks, covering 310 different user journeys across 31 categories. This totalled 31,000 participants.

These participants were placed within 10 different scenarios, each testing a different brand characteristic.

The study then asked them to rate what their first or second favourite brand was. 

… and so on.

Three highly interesting findings for online disruption were:

  • Being consistently visible helps promote brand affinity

  • Cost beats loyalty (most of the time)

  • A newcomer consistently exhibiting these will disrupt top market sharers

The research shows that targeting these cognitive biases is vital in maintaining, or gaining, market share. This outcome is based on two things: how well known the brand is with the person and how well the cognitive biases have been leveraged to the brand’s advantage. 

Google then looked to itemise the cognitive biases that users are susceptible to. The research suggests that by deploying all of these in combination, a challenger brand can take a full 90% of preference away from the first-choice brand when the challenger is supercharged with all six biases.

These six biases are:

  1. Category Heuristics – a shortcut to help a user make a decision, shouting about what makes a product unique. Think about a well-written product description.

  2. Authority Bias – ways to shortcut the need to understand due to well thought of experts saying they value the product. Think of influencer marketing.

  3. Social Proof – a way to show that others trust the product, explaining why a customer should do too. Think of star ratings.

  4. Power of Now – framing that the product the customer has shown interest in will be better today than ever. Think of trends.

  5. Scarcity Bias – sharing with prospective customers that there’s a limited amount of stock available. Think of ‘Only X Left’.

  6. Power of Free – shouting about the free aspects of you as a seller vs competitor – humans love free things. Think of free delivery.


The Messy Middle can be explained as a paradigm of online behaviour which suggests that users are ultimately always in market, but just require the right triggers. These triggers or biases, if served, will effectively pull users out of the exploration and evaluation stages, onto a brand’s site and, all being well, onto purchase.

How does a Total Search approach work?

Given that there are a range of queries being made throughout a buyer’s journey and based on the finding that it’s paramount for a brand to be seen, we decided we needed to bring our search channels together. We brought iCrossing UK’s search practices to one unified search framework, which we call Total Search. 

Our programme looks to leverage paid capabilities to then scale within organic search. 

In practical terms we:

  1. Use pay-per-click message testing to understand what drives the most clicks (statistically)

  2. Optimise all landing pages to be SEO friendly 

  3. On/off test to ensure spend is truly incremental

We appreciate that the messy middle theory may seem complex, but in practice we see it more as a study on how we can drive better results. Once search is understood within this framework, spotting opportunities and getting the most out of search is relatively straightforward.

By Harry Sumner

Senior Search Director