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When search results meet the eye

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

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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