Eye Tracking on Personalized Search: a Tough Nut to Crack

First published August 16, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I was in Seattle for the SMX show when somebody asked me if we were planning on doing eye tracking studies on personalized search results.  I replied that I would love to do it, but I just wasn’t sure how.  To accurately track interactions with a personalized page of results, you have to be able to have access to your participant for a significant period of time and track their click stream data. That raises some rather ugly privacy concerns.  The other problem is that Google’s current implementation of personalization is so watered down, it really doesn’t have much impact on the user experience.  What would be really interesting to do is to see what a user interaction might look like with personalized results the way they’ll be in two to three years.

Planting a Research Seed…

With that seed planted, I came back from Seattle, and the first thing I did  was to sit down with our research team and start to explore how we might pull this off.  We realized early on that we wouldn’t be able to do the kind of study where we bring in participants from our regular panel and track interactions with a real search engine.  To come up with a really interesting study, we were going to have to fudge it on the methodology a bit. This was not going to be a study with bulletproof methodology.

So we opted for interesting instead.  We decided that it would be fascinating to speculate on what the search results page might look like in 2010, with a more personalized, richer experience that brings many types of results onto the same page.  How would the eye navigate a search results page that included more than just text-based Web results?  How would we interact with images and video, maps and audio files, all interwoven on the same results page?  How would advertising standout from the organic results? Would the Golden Triangle still exist? Would we still scan the results in an F-shaped pattern?

All these were top-of-mind questions So, starting in late June, we started to put the study together.  Because we couldn’t use our traditional panel (because of privacy issues involved in getting a truly personalized experience) we had to reach out to our circle of family and friends.  What we wanted to do was track interactions with the search results page as it might progress over the next three years.

We came up with three different flavors of search results: the universal results we’re saying today on Google, a slightly more aggressive presentation of universal and personalized search that we might see in a year or two, and then a much more personalized, varied presentation of results in a portal-like format that might represent the search results page in three years time.  We were able to interview some of our favorite experts in the world of search usability and behavior to get a glimpse of what search might look like in the year 2010.  They included Jakob Nielsen, Marissa Mayer, Larry Cornett, Justin Osmer, Greg Sterling, Danny Sullivan and Chris Sherman.

Heat Mapalooza

 I’ve just spent the last week going over hundreds of heat maps slices to try to get a white paper together to release for SES San Jose.  By the way, for regular readers of this column, you’ll remember that when I came back from Seattle, I was somewhat taken aback by the lack of interest in what personalization might mean for the search marketer.  For the 20 or so of you that posted comments indicating that you are definitely interested in how personalization will impact search marketing and would like to hear my thoughts, you’ll be happy to know that we’re adding a section to this white paper on just that subject.

The End of the Golden Triangle?

Without spoiling the results of the study, here are a few tidbits I can share.  Even in Google’s present linear format, the minute you start introducing images into the results, you break down the scan patterns that result in the Golden Triangle.

We saw significant variations in initial orientation points on the page, which led to a much different interaction and scanning pattern.  We tend to fixate on images and if these images appear in the top of page real estate, they create different entry points for the eye.  Our entry point has traditionally been in the far upper left, but now we may orient on an image that’s in the second or third result and then move to further scanning from this point.

In the sessions where we saw the scanning activity move down the page and start from an in-line graphic, we saw a different level of interaction with the sponsored results. Scanning is pulled down the page and away from the top of page, Golden Triangle real estate.

One of the really interesting things to consider is that the interface of the search results page is in more flux now than it has been in any time in the past decade.  Engines are increasingly looking at presentation of results as a key differentiating factor in the search engine war.  Ask really pushed this approach with their introduction of 3-D Search.

The search results page we see now has largely defined itself, based on Google’s success, across all the major search properties and has remained relatively static over the past few years.  All that is about to change.  As we search for a richer and more relevant search experience, the elements of the page will be in constant flux.

One of the challenges will be in making sure that as personalization takes hold, the relevance of the organic results and the relevance of the sponsored results stay in sync.  This was a point contantly hammered home by Marissa Mayer in several interviews with her.  While Google is choosing the organic side to roll out its personalization technology, the company has to ensure that the relevancy of the sponsored results doesn’t begin to drop, relative to personalized organic results.  There will be a delicate juggling act needed to ensure that the user experience and the effectiveness of advertising don’t sway too far from the ideal point of balance.

I can tell you that the heat maps I’ve seen so far are the most interesting ones I’ve seen since we first identified the Golden Triangle. If you do happen to be at SES San Jose, try to catch the results at the research update panel. Otherwise, I’ll give you a heads-up when it’s available in this column in a few weeks time.

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