The Rule of Three in Search

First published July 20, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Once again, I find myself up to my earlobes in eye-tracking data. I have no one to blame, as I got myself into this mess when I made the well-intentioned but poorly thought out promise to have the first draft of a study done by the time I head out on vacation at the end of the month.

In wading through the sessions (about 420 of them) sometimes new insights rise to the top–and sometimes my eyeballs just roll back in my head as my hands jerk spasmodically on my keyboard and drool runs down my cheek. Luckily, this week it was the former.

In this study, we are looking at interactions with Google, compared to MSN and Yahoo. Recently, one finding in particular seemed to be screaming out to be noticed. Being a compassionate sort of researcher, I listened.

When we looked at interactions with the top sponsored ads, there was a notable difference between MSN, Yahoo and Google. On MSN and Google, the percentage of clicks happening on these top ads seemed to be in line with previous studies done both by us and by others. But the amount of activity on the Yahoo ads seemed to be substantially higher. We started out by looking at first fixations, or the first place people looked on the page, even for a split second. Here, the engines were all in the same ball park, with 83.7 percent of first fixations in top sponsored ads for Yahoo, compared to 86.7 percent for MSN and 80.6 percent for Google.

Then, we looked at where the first activity on listing happened; where on the page did people start actually scanning listings? Google held a good percentage of eyeballs, keeping 12.4 percent of the users, while MSN had a significant defection issue, losing 36.6 percent of the people who first fixated in the top sponsored ads. But Yahoo lost the fewest, with only 5.5 percent choosing to look elsewhere. And finally, Google had 25.8 percent click-throughs on these ads, and MSN had 16.7 percent (yes, this is low, but MSN was dealing with a number of issues at the time of the study). Yahoo led the pack with a 30.2 percent click-through rate. In fact, for the first time ever in our research, a sponsored link (the number one top sponsored) out-pulled the No. 1 organic link, at click-through rates of 25.6 percent vs. 14 percent. This was a complete reversal of the click-through ratios we saw on the other two engines.

For whatever reason, Yahoo’s top sponsored ads seemed to be locking searchers into their part of the results page to a much greater extent than Google and MSN.

Why? What the heck was going on? Better ads? Not really. If anything, Google’s ads seemed a touch more relevant.

Location, Location, Location

Part of it was real estate. Another interesting comparison we did was to look at the percentages of screen real estate devoted to various sections of the page. Yahoo has gone out of its way to make the top sponsored ads the dominant feature on a results page at 1024 by 768 screen resolution. At this size, the ads take up 23 percent of the real estate, compared to approximately 16 percent for Google and Yahoo. This pushes organic listings on Yahoo perilously close to the fold.

And there, as I stared at the screen shots of fully loaded (maximum ads and vertical results showing) Google, MSN and Yahoo results at standard resolution, a possible answer revealed itself. On Google, three top sponsored ads, three OneBox results, and three visible organic listings. On MSN, the same three:three:three presentation. But on Yahoo, there were four top sponsored ads, three vertical results, and just one and a half organic listings were visible.

The Rule of Three

Hmmm, three, three and three. There was something there, niggling in the back of my mind. Quickly, I did a search for the “Rule of Three” and sure enough, there it was. We humans tend to think in triplets. Three is a good number to wrap our mind around, and we see it in all kinds of instances. We tend to remember points best when given in groups of three, we scan visual elements best when they come in threes, and we like to have three options to consider. Think how often three comes up in our society: three little pigs, three strikes, three doors on “Let’s Make a Deal,” three competitive quotes. It’s a triordered world out there.

So is it coincidence that search results tend to be presented to us, neatly ordered in groups of three? I think not. It strikes me that this engrained human behavior would probably translate to the search engine results page as well.

The Ruler-breaker

MSN and Google tend to adhere to the rule of three in their layouts (depending on whether or not Google serves three top sponsored ads). Our choices are conveniently presented in neat trios, with logical divides between each.

Yahoo breaks the rule by tipping the balance in favor of the top sponsored ads. First, it provides four results, not three. Does this mean we need to spend a little more time up in these results, trying to fit one extra one into our limited memory slots? That appears to be the case, with people spending an average of 4.6 seconds in the Yahoo top sponsored results in our study, compared to 2.4 seconds for Google and 1.73 seconds for MSN.

Second, it only gives us one visible organic listing to consider. It breaks our natural desire to have three alternatives, thereby reducing the Promise of Interest for the organic listings. In effect, on the screen of results most people would see on Yahoo, we only have one alternative, the top sponsored ads.

An earth-shaking discovery? Perhaps not. But cut me some slack. I’ve been looking at eye-tracking data daily for three months now, spending about three hours each day looking at interactions with the three engines. I think it’s time I took the three other members of my family on a three-week vacation, during which we’ll be visiting three countries. Wait a minute! Do I sense a pattern developing?

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