Eye Tracking in 2014: How Users View and Interact with Today’s Google SERPs

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Posted by rMaynes1

In September 2014, Mediative released its latest eye-tracking research entitled “The Evolution of Google’s Search Engine Results Pages and Their Effects on User Behaviour“.

This large study had participants conduct various searches using Google on a desktop. For example, participants were asked “Imagine you’re moving from Toronto to Vancouver. Use Google to find a moving company in Toronto.” Participants were all presented with the same Google SERP, no matter the search query.

Mediative wanted to know where people look and click on the SERP the most, what role the location of the listing on the SERP plays in winning views and clicks, and how click activity on listings has changed with the introduction of Google features such as the carousel, the knowledge graph etc.

Mediative discovered that, just as Google’s SERP has evolved over the past decade, so too has the way in which search engine users scan the page before making a click.

Back in 2005 when a similar eye-tracking study was conducted for the first time by Mediative (formerly Enquiro), it was discovered that people searched in a distinctive “triangle” pattern, starting in the top left of the search results page where they expected the first organic listing to be located, and reading across horizontally before moving their eyes down to the second organic listing, and reading horizontally, but not quite as far. This area of concentrated gaze activity became known as Google’s “Golden Triangle”. The study concluded that if a business’s listing was not in the Golden Triangle, its odds of being seen by a searcher were dramatically reduced.

Heat map from 2005 showing the area known as Google’s “Golden Triangle”.

But now, in 2014, the top organic results are no longer always in the top-left corner where searchers expect them to be, so they scan other areas of the SERP, trying to seek out the top organic listing, but being distracted by other elements along the way. The #1 organic listing is shifting further down the page, and while this listing still captures the most click activity (32.8%) regardless of what new elements are presented, the shifting location has opened up the top of the page with more potential areas for businesses to achieve visibility.

Where scanning was once more horizontal, the adoption of mobile devices over the past 9 years has habitually conditioned searchers to now scan more vertically—they are looking for the fastest path to the desired content, and, compared to 9 years ago, they are viewing more search results listings during a single session and spending less time viewing each one.

Searchers on Google now scan far more vertically than several years ago.

One of the biggest changes from SERPS 9 years ago to today is that Google is now trying to keep people on the result page for as long as they can.

An example is in the case of the knowledge graph. In Mediative’s study. when searchers were looking for “weather in New Orleans”, the results page that was presented to them showed exactly what they needed to know. Participants were asked to click on the result that they felt best met their needs, even if, if reality, they wouldn’t have clicked through (in order to end that task). When a knowledge graph result exactly met the intent of the searcher, the study found 80% of people looked at that result, and 44% clicked on it. Google provided searchers with a relevant enough answer to keep them on the SERP. The top organic listing captured 36.5% of pages clicks—compared to 82% when the knowledge graph did not provide the searcher with the answer they were looking for.

It’s a similar case with the carousel results; when a searcher clicks on a listing, instead of going through to the listing’s website, another SERP is presented specifically about the business, as Google tries to increase paid ad impressions/clicks on the Google search results page.

How can businesses stay on top of these changes and ensure they still get listed?

There are four main things to keep in mind:

1. The basic fundamentals of SEO are as important as ever

Create unique, fresh content, which speaks to the needs of your customers as this will always trump chasing the algorithm. There are also on-page and off-page SEO tactics that you can employ that can increase your chances of being listed in areas of the SERP other than your website’s organic listing such as front-loading keywords in page titles and meta descriptions, getting listed on directories and ratings and reviews site, having social pages etc. It’s important to note that SEO strategy is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach.

2. Consider using schema mark-up wherever possible

In Mediative’s 2014 Google SERP research, it was discovered that blog posts that had been marked up using schema to show the picture and name of the author got a significant amount of engagement, even when quite far down the first page—these listings garnered an average of 15.5% of total page clicks.

Note: As of August 2014, Google removed authorship markup entirely. However, the results are still a good example of how schema mark-up can be used to make your business listing stand out more on the SERP, potentially capturing more view and clicks, and therefore more website traffic.

In the study, participants were asked to “Imagine that you’re starting a business and you need to find a company to host your website. Use Google to find information about website hosting companies”. The SERP presented is shown below:

Almost 45% of clicks went to 2 blog posts titled “Five Best Web Hosting Companies” and “10 Best Web Hosting Companies”.

In general, the top clicked posts were those that had titles including phrases such as:

  • “Best…”
  • “Reviews of…”
  • “Top 5…”
  • “How-to…”

According to Google, “On-page markup helps search engines understand the information on webpages and provide richer results…Google doesn’t use markup for ranking purposes at this time-but rich snippets can make your web pages appear more prominently in search results, so you may see an increase in traffic.”

Schema markup is probably the most under-utilized tool for SEO, presenting a huge opportunity for companies that do utilize the Google approved tool. Searchmetrics reported that only 0.3% of websites use schema markup, yet over a third of Google’s results contain rich snippets (additional text, images and links below the individual search results). BruceClay.com reports rich snippets can increase CTRs of listings between 15-50% and that websites using schema markup tend to rank higher in search results.

Schema mark-up can be used to add star ratings, number of reviews, pricing (all shown in the listing below) and more to a search results page listing.


3. Know the intent of your users

Understanding what searchers are trying to discover when they conduct a search can help determine how much effort you should try and put into appearing in the number one organic listing, which can be an extremely difficult task without unlimited budget and resources—and, even if you do make it the number one organic listing, traffic is not guaranteed as discovered in this reaserch. If you’re competing with big name brands, or ratings and review sites, and THAT is what your customers want, they you are going to struggle to compete.

The importance of your business being the first listing vs. on the first page therefore, is highly dependent on the searcher’s intent, plus the strength of your brand. The key is to always keep user intent top-of-mind, and this can be established by talking to real people, rather than guessing. What are they looking for when they are searching for your site? Structure your content around what people really want and need, list your site on the directories that people actually visit or reference, create videos (if that’s what your audience wants)—know what your actual customers are looking for, and then provide it.

There are going to be situations when a business can’t get to number one on the organic listings. As previously mentioned, the study shows that this is still the key place to be, and the top organic listing captures more clicks that any other single listing. But if your chances of getting to that number one spot are slim, you need to focus on other areas of the SERP, such as positions #4 or higher, which will be easier to obtain ranking for—businesses that are positioned lower on the SERP (especially positions 2-4) see more click activity than they did several years ago, making this real estate much more valuable. As Gord Hotchkiss writes about, searchers tend to “chunk” information on the SERP and scan each chuck in the same way they used to search the entire SERP—in a triangle pattern. Getting listed at the top of a “chunk” can therefore be effective for many businesses. This idea of “chunking” and scanning can be seen in the heat map below.

To add to that, Mediative’s research showed that everything located above the top 4 organic listings (so, carousel results, knowledge graph, paid listings, local listings etc.) combined captured 84% of clicks. If you can’t get your business listing to #1, but can get listed somewhere higher than #4, you have a good chance of being seen, and clicked on by searchers. Ultimately, people expect Google to continue to do its job, and respond to search queries with the most relevant results at the top. The study points out that only 1% of participants were willing to click through to Page 2 to see more results. If you’re not listed on page 1 of Google for relevant searches, you may as well not exist online.

4. A combination of SEO and paid search can maximize your visibility in SERP areas that have the biggest impact on both branding and traffic

Even though organic listings are where many businesses are striving to be listed (and where the majority of clicks take place), it’s important not to forget about paid listings as a component of your digital strategy. Click-through rates for top sponsored listings (positions 1 and 2) have changed very little in the past decade. Where the huge change has taken place is in the ability of sponsored ads on the right rail to attract attention and clicks. Activity on this section of the page is almost non-existent. This can be put down to a couple of factors including searchers conditioned behaviour as mentioned before, to scan more vertically, thanks to our increased mobile usage, and the fact that over the years we have learned that those results may not typically be very relevant, or as good as the organic results, so we tend not to even take the time to view them.

Mediative’s research also found that there are branding effects of paid search, even if not directly driving traffic. We asked participants to “Imagine you are traveling to New Orleans and are looking for somewhere to meet a friend for dinner in the French Quarter area. Use Google to find a restaurant.” Participants were presented with a SERP showing 2 paid ads—the first was for opentable.com, and the second for the restaurant Remoulade, remoulade.com.

The top sponsored listing, opentable.com, was viewed by 84% of participants, and captured 26% of clicks. The second listing, remoulade.com, only captured 2% of clicks but was looked at by 73% of participants. By being seen by almost 3/4 of participants, the paid listing can increase brand affinity, and therefore purchase (or choice) consideration in other areas! For example, if the searcher comes back and searches again another time, or clicks to opentable.com and then sees Remoulade listed, it may benefit from a higher brand affinity from having already been seen in the paid listings. Mediative conducted a Brand Lift study featuring Honda that found the more real estate that brands own on the SERP, the higher the CTR, and the higher the brand affinity, brand recognition, purchase consideration etc. Using paid search for more of a branding play is essentially free brand advertising—while you should be prepared to get the clicks and pay for them of course, it likely that your business listing will be seen by a large number of people without capturing the same number of clicks. Impression data can also be easily tracked with Google paid ads so you know exactly how many times your ad was shown, and can therefore estimate how many people actually looked at it from a branding point of view.

Rebecca Maynes is a Marketing Communications Strategist with Mediative, and was a major contributor on this study. The full study, including click-through rates for all areas of the SERP, can be downloaded at www.mediative.com/SERP.

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Colin Cooper is the CEO of Boost Your Business, the leader in marketing and business development for both large and small scale businesses. As one of the most innovative marketing specialists for over a decade, Colin and his team of business and online experts collate their years of know-how and experiences with the Boost Your Business: Body Armour for Business, an online magazine created to provide a holistic resource avenue for everything business, health, and wellness.

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