The Way Searchers Scan Google Results Has Changed, Study Shows

googlesearchEver since a 2005 study, many search engine optimizers have worked under the assumption that when users look at search engine results pages, they pay the most attention to the upper left-hand corner. But a new eye-tracking study suggests that this so-called “golden triangle” no longer represents how searchers approach results pages.

For the study, presented at the SMX West search marketing conference at the beginning of March, the eye movements of 53 people were tracked as they performed searches and chose from the results on desktop computers. The researchers found that before selecting a result, people made one vertical scan down the left to assess the various links, and to look at the subheadings Google provides (local, maps, news, videos, etc.). People are far less likely to scan horizontally than they used to.

The time in which people made a decision and clicked a link was only eight or nine seconds — nearly half of the 14 to 15 seconds measured in the study a decade ago.

Implications for Marketing
One of the somewhat surprising implications of the changed pattern is that there may be less pressure for businesses to capture the first spot in the organic results, since users appear to be scanning results one through three or one through four as a group.

That’s not to say having the top organic result is useless, since it still captures the highest click-through rates overall. However, users seem to be more aware of the fact that relevant results (such as a local restaurant’s site) may appear a few slots down.

The new viewing pattern also suggests that paid links at the top of the page are far more influential than paid links on the right-hand side.

And regarding the paid ads that appear above organic results, it’s important to remember that these serve an additional purpose above and beyond providing alternative links to the organic results; they’re also brand advertisements that can influence future decisions — even when they don’t appear to be having an immediate impact on searchers’ decisions.

Study Limitations
Marketers and SEOs should keep a few caveats in mind before making any major changes based on the study, however, its authors said.

One major limitation of the study is that although its creators acknowledge the importance of mobile — even commenting that the mobile scrolling layout may have influenced more heavily vertical eye movement patterns — the study was only carried out with desktop searchers.

“These findings are not a surprise to us at all. We believe that mobile is definitely pushing this trend since vertical scrolling is inherent to the mobile experience,” says John Diaz, General Manager, On Top Visibility. “Our findings show that mobile is fast becoming the “go to” for consumer search queries due to convenience and the fact that more and more users are using voice command for their queries. Laptops, tablets and desktops on the other hand are becoming more relevant in the media streaming space.”

The study was also confined to North America, so it would probably have to be repeated with a wider range of participants to make its findings generalizable.

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