Relevancy Rules in Sponsored Search Ads

First published May 4, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Let me quote some rather startling numbers to you from a recent eye tracking study we did. In the study, we examined where people first looked on a search results page, where they first scanned a listing, and where they eventually clicked.

First of all, we gave participants a number of different scenarios that involved looking to a search engine to help them make a purchase. We used Google, Yahoo and MSN in the study. In all cases, on all 3 engines, the vast majority of people first glanced at the top- sponsored listings. In eye tracking parlance, we call this a fixation, or a momentary pause of the eye. On Yahoo, 84 percent of the first fixations were on the top sponsored listings when they appeared, on Google it was 81 percent, and on MSN it was 87 percent. So, almost nine out of every 10 people start looking at the search results page by at least glancing at the top sponsored listings

The next thing we measured was active scanning. This is where participants started reading a listing. On Google and Yahoo, there was strong correlation with the first fixation point, with 79 percent of the first reading activity on top sponsored for Yahoo, and 71 percent for Google. MSN was another story. While 87 percent of participants first glanced at the top sponsored ads, only 55 percent started reading there. Almost 32 percent of our participants immediately relocated past the sponsored ads.

Finally, we recorded where the eventual clicks happened. In Google’s case, 26 percent of the clicks happened in the top sponsored ads, with Yahoo it was 30 percent, and MSN came in with 17 percent click through on top sponsored.

Here’s what we took from the numbers. On Google, although over 80 percent of searchers started in the top sponsored, only 26 percent found something relevant and compelling enough to click on, and remember, these were commercial, product oriented searches. On Yahoo, 84 percent started in top sponsored, but in Yahoo’s case, about 30 percent stuck around and clicked an ad. And with MSN, something entirely different was going on. It seems that MSN users have a bad case of banner blindness when it comes to top sponsored ads.

Scanning Follows Relevancy

The reason top sponsored ads are effective is because they’re placed in the highest traffic portion of the page. We orient ourselves in the page on the upper left. Our destination is the top organic ad. Top sponsored ads are placed in the middle of the most popular real estate on the SERP. This is shown by the high percentage of fixations that happen in this section.

But our interactions with the SERP are not all about position. We can, very quickly, determine if what’s there is relevant to what we’re looking for. We quickly scan titles to see if the ads presented match our intent. And when I say quickly, I’m talking fractions of a second. We start picking up relevancy without even having to read the listings by determining scent. If the listing has “scent” and it’s a good match, we’ll not only hang around and start scanning the listing, we may even click on it. Otherwise, we do what we intended to do in the first place and skip down to the organic listings. That’s what’s happening on Google and Yahoo. MSN is another story.

The MSN Two-Step

During the study period, MSN was in experimentation mode. It was in the process of dropping Yahoo ads from the top listing and substituting its own advertising, which in most cases wasn’t keyword-driven to the same extent that the Yahoo ads were. This usually meant that the “scent” or relevancy match wasn’t as great. When this happened, we saw almost immediate relocation down to organic results. Users could determine the existence, or in this case, absence of scent in a fraction of a second and relocated down. In effect, it was an example of banner blindness, where they were determining that the top sponsored results weren’t relevant.

The lesson from this for the search engines is that you can’t take position for granted. You have to deliver with relevancy and the greater the relevancy, or at least, the perceived relevancy, the better those top sponsored ads will perform.

Yahoo’s Relevancy Capitulation

Yahoo has learned this over time. In the beginning days of GoTo/Overture/Yahoo, position was determined solely by bidding. When Google came on the scene, it offered a blended approach, where click-through rates also helped determine position. The theory was, the higher the click-through rate, the greater the relevancy.

Yahoo has recently announced integrating click through rates and relevancy into the sponsored positioning algorithm as well. This is the beginning. Soon, message and landing page relevancy will also be factored into the position equation.

When it comes to capturing a searcher’s click, you have to deliver relevancy. It’s not all about position–and this fact will become more true in the future, not less.

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