Confessions of an Eye Tracking Junkie

Originally published July 21, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

You know how fires, the ocean, and computer progress bars are mesmerizing? You can sit for hours, watching the constant motion. Next thing you know, you wake up from the reverie and realize that everybody has abandoned you, assuming you’ve passed into a catatonic state.

After looking at hundreds of eye tracking sessions for our most recent whitepaper, I can add eye tracking results to the list. For someone as obsessed with search user behavior as I am, this was a pure jolt of addiction-inducing visual stimuli. Why did they look there? Why didn’t they click? Are they going to scroll down? Wait for it… wait for it… ahh… they did!

It may not be hang gliding or rock climbing, but for me, this is life on the edge. I know, my wife thinks I’m pathetic too.

48 X 2 X 5 = Search Geek Nirvana.

We had 48 people, with 2 eyes each (Greek mythological creatures weren’t included in this particular sample), work their way through 5 separate scenarios using Google. I apologize to the MSN’s, Yahoo!’s, and other engines of the world, but we had to reduce scope somewhere. Your turn’s coming.

Needless to say, we had a lot of sessions to look at. And not once did it get boring. It was fascinating to watch how people navigated a search page.

A lot of detail came out of the study. The whitepaper sits at about 106 pages. But I can share a few of the interesting ones with you.

Google’s Prime Real Estate: The Golden Triangle By now, most people reading this column have probably heard about Google’s Golden Triangle. It represents the region of the most intense scanning and clicking activity. It starts in the upper left corner in the top sponsored ads and extends down to the top four or five organic results. It ends at the bottom of the results visible without scrolling. The Golden Triangle is seen by 80 to 100 percent of the visitors to the page. By contrast, listings below the fold and the side sponsored ads are seen by only 10 to 50 percent of visitors.

Going Sponsored? Stay on Top Top sponsored ads outperformed side sponsored ads in every category. They enjoyed twice the visibility (80 to 100 percent of participants who saw top sponsored versus 10 to 50 percent who saw side sponsored) and click throughs (almost 12 percent versus 5 percent of all clicks) of the side sponsored ads. And people found what they were looking for. In terms of stated satisfaction with the results found after clicking through to a site, the top sponsored ads performed better than any of the listings on the page.

More on Those Eye Catching Top Ads Few of us go to a search engine looking for paid results. But the fact is, they catch a lot of eyes on our way to the organic results. The more that appear on top of those top organic results, the greater the chance that we’ll be spending at least a few seconds looking there. When both sponsored ads and OneBox results (the news, shopping, or local results that appear above the top organic ads in Google) showed up, 70 percent looked at the top sponsored ads first. In some cases, it was just a split second glance (called a fixation point in the study) and then the person quickly moved down to the organic listings before they started to read the listings. This happened in about 12 percent of the cases. But the fact remains, 58 percent of the participants stuck around in these top listings and spent a few seconds scanning them. So, in many cases, this represents your first chance to intercept a prospect.

Anatomy of a Scan Pattern Across all sessions we analyzed in the study, about 30 percent of searchers started scanning in the top sponsored ads, 15 percent in OneBox results, and 50 percent in top organic results. Remember, top sponsored ads and OneBox results don’t appear for every search. It seems that everyone’s intention is to move down to the organic results, but about 14 percent of the time (on first visits to a search results page) searchers click on either a top sponsored link or OneBox results before they get there.

Search Decisions in the Blink of an Eye We don’t spend a lot of time on a search results page. Participants spent an average of about 6.5 seconds on the results page. In that time, they scanned just under four listings before they clicked on one. In most cases, we scan listings rather than read them, and if we do read, it’s usually only the title.

Me, Myself, and Eye For anyone remotely interested in how people move their way through a search page, eye tracking provides some fascinating and compelling insights. You have a record of every eye movement and split-second stop. In many cases, the participant themselves would be surprised to see the places their eyes stopped on the way to the eventual click through. It provides an unequaled visual record of a search page interaction. But be warned, side effects may include the inability to communicate with co-workers and spouses, a glassy haze over your eyes, increased pulse rates when examining aggregate heat maps, and missed wedding anniversaries. So please, proceed with caution.

Hello, my name is Gord, and I love looking at eye-tracking results.

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