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What are searchers thinking when they stare down a list of search results? Actually, the first thing to keep in mind is that searchers don’t stare at search results. They don’t even read them. They scan them. They quickly skim the page hunting for the word they typed into the search box, along with a few other words they’re thinking but didn’t bother typing.


And they do it quickly. Gord Hotchkiss, CEO of Enquiro says that searchers spend just seven seconds looking at an Internet search results page, and Cornell University says it is less than six. Regardless of the exact amount of time spent, searchers are sizing up the results rapidly.
To see what searchers are seeing, Enquiro conducted an eye tracking study that recorded eye movements (and clicks) and created graphs that corresponded to where searchers looked on the screen and what they “fixated” on. This heat map from Enquiro shows where on the Google results page searchers looked the most. (Searchers using Web site search probably behave in similar ways.) The heat map shows us intense interest in the upper left part of the search results—searchers scan starting at the #1 result to see their search words highlighted in the titles and work their way down the page.
Now, it’s not exactly earth-shattering to hear that searchers look at the top search results, but if you thought that folks were looking at the ads on the right of the screen or the number of search results—well, they don’t look at those areas as much. Where searchers look is important, because people generally don’t click where they don’t look—although some experts cast doubt on eye tracking studies because human eyesight provides considerable peripheral vision. (Some people actually do click scroll bars and other areas without looking at them.) Regardless, where searchers look gives us great clues as to what has their attention and, thus, could attract their clicks.
Moreover, only about 60 percent of Internet searchers scroll below “the fold” (the part of the page that is off the bottom of the screen when first shown), according to Greg Edwards, the CTO of Eyetools, which performed the study with Enquiro. And when Internet searchers return to a search results page, Greg said, they tend to look further down the search results page for more results, with results above the fold still getting a big edge in clicks.
One reason that searchers spend so little time on the search results page is that they click the first thing that looks like the right answer. They are not looking for the best answer—just the first decent answer. This behavior is consistent with studies that show that people often choose information that is easier to get even when it is of lower quality (a basic principle of foraging behavior also.)
But what are they looking for? The words in their query, yes, but that’s not all. Gord describes a particular searcher behavior called “semantic mapping” whereby searchers associate many possible search terms with a concept but enter only one or two words into the search box. For example, a searcher looking for a digital camera thinks about many words (such as reviews, megapixel, Nikon, Canon, Kodak, easy-to-use, reviews, and testimonials) but ends up typing in “digital camera.” But those other words are not forgotten. The searcher scans for those words in the search results also, not just the words that were typed. In this way, a #2 result that contains more occurrences of the words in a searcher’s semantic map could attract more clicks than the #1 result.
Most Internet searchers look only at the first page of search results—the top of the first page at that. But Jarvis Mak, Director at Nielsen/NetRatings, notes that as searchers do more and more searches within a session they are far more likely to look at a second page of search results, perhaps even a third page. These are the distinct minority of searches, but it does show that when searchers are intently searching for something they use more queries and view more results pages.
Within each search result, Internet searchers spend 43 percent of the time viewing the snippet (the multi-line description under the title), followed by 30 percent reviewing the title itself, according to that same Cornell study. Why is that important? Good titles and descriptions are the keys to getting searchers to click.
The more you know about searcher behavior, the more you can do to improve your organic search marketing and your Web site search.

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Mike Moran

About Mike Moran

Mike Moran has a unique blend of marketing and technology skills that he applies to raise return on investment for large marketing programs. Mike is a former IBM Distinguished Engineer and the Senior Strategist at Converseon, a leading social consultancy. Mike is the author of two books on digital marketing, an instructor at several leading universities, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Society of New Communications Research.

5 replies to this post
  1. You seem to have uncovered a really important principle here, and your research, especially your inclusion of the “heat map,” makes a convincing case. The article on “Critical Thinking and the Internet” really grabbed my attention, since it suggests that this scanning behavior you mention is something we acquire before we’re even eighteen. I notice you don’t discuss how often searchers actually go to a second search page or beyond. I know that personally I’m pretty unlikely to go beyond that first page of results, and I’ve got to believe that few people do. Certainly your heat map image seems to show that even on the first page, results at the top get more attention. The real question your article left me with, then, is how one might re-work a website so that it shows up early in the search results list.

  2. Your suspicions are correct. Research shows that 62% of searchers choose a result on the first page. Of the remainder, many choose a new search query or go to a different search engine, with only a few moving on to page two. I will selfishly recommend our book, Search Engine Marketing, Inc., as the best resource to improving your efforts to reach searchers.

  3. In the English department where I work as a professor, we are doing a lot of work on how computers are affecting reading habits and how they might be used to improve reading and analysis. Your work will definitely be useful for thinking about these issues. We have designed an XML markup system that allows students to tag certain elements of their writing so that later we can go back and manipulate their text in particular ways. So, for instance, we can mark the thesis statement and all the topic sentences, and then pull only those sentences out in order to look at the paper’s skeleton. Lately, some of my colleagues have been asking students to mark particular elements in poetry – metaphors for instance – and using the markings to re-arrange a poem and look at it in new ways.

  4. This is the reason why most web page builders make sure that the most important links in their page are at the upper left portion of the site they’re building. One reason for this is human’s natural way of reading – left to right – unless you’re Chinese.

  5. Yes, for left-to-right languages, people always start reading in the upper left. But for search result screens, they drop down from the masthead of the page and look right at the #1 result–it’s not exactly at the top. This scanning behavior is the most interesting aspect of Enquiro’s research.

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