An Image Can Change Everything for the Searcher

First published September 6, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

For the many of you who responded to last week’s column about Nona Yolanda, I just want to take a few seconds to let you know that she passed away the evening of Sept. 3, having fought for five days more than doctors gave her. She was in the presence of her family right until the end. We printed off your comments and well wishes and posted them on the hospital door. It was somewhat surprising but very gratifying for my wife’s family to know that Nona’s story touched hearts around the world. Thank you. – G.H.

The world of the search results page is changing quickly, which means that we’re going to have to apply new rules for user behavior. This week, I’d like to look at some results from a recent eye tracking study we did about how we interact with search when graphic elements start to appear on the page. We also tested for the inclusion of personalized results. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so I’ll start off with Universal Search this week, and cover personalization and the future of search next week.

Warning: Graphic Depictions Ahead

You can’t get much more basic than the search results page we’ve all grown to know in the past decade. The 10 blue organic links and, more recently, the top and side sponsored ads have defined the interface. It’s been all text, ordered in a linear top to bottom format. The only sliver of real estate that saw any variation was the vertical results, sandwiched between top sponsored and top organic. So it was little wonder that we saw a consistent scan pattern emerge, which we labeled the Golden Triangle. It was created by an “F”-shaped scan pattern, where we scanned down the left hand side, looking for information scent, and then scanned across when we found it.

But that design paradigm is in the middle of change. The first and most significant of these will be the inclusion of different types of results on the same page, blended into the main results set. Google’s label is Universal Search, Ask’s is 3D Search and Yahoo’s is Omni Search. Whatever you choose to call it, it defines a whole new ball game for the user.

Starting at the Top…

In the classic pattern, users began at the top left corner because there was no real reason not to. We saw the page, our eyes swung up to the top left and then we started our “F”- shaped scans from there. Therefore, our interactions with the page were very top-heavy. The variable in this was the relevance of the top sponsored ads. If the engine maintained relevance by only showing top sponsored when they were highly relevant (i.e. Google) to the query, we scanned them. If the engine bowed to the pressures of monetization and showed the ads even when they might not be highly relevant to the query (we saw more examples of this on Yahoo and Microsoft) users tended to move down quickly and the Golden Triangle stretched much further down the page. It was a mild form of search banner blindness. The one thing that remained consistent was the upper left starting point.

But things change, at least for now, when you start mixing results into the equation. If the number 2 or 3 organic return is a blended one, with a thumbnail graphic, we assume the different presentation must mean the result is unique in some way. The graphic proves to be a power attractor for the eye, especially if it’s a relevant graphic. It’s information scent that can be immediately “grokked” (to use Jakob Nielsen’s parlance) and this often drew the eye quickly down, making this the new entry point for scanning. This reduces the top to bottom bias (or totally eliminates it), making the blended result the first one scanned. Also, we saw a much more deliberate scanning of this listing.

Give Me an F, Give Me an E…

Another common behavior we identified is the creation of a consideration set, by choosing three or four listings to scan before either choosing the most relevant one or selecting another consideration set. In the pre-blended results set, this consideration set was usually the top three or four results. But in blended results, it’s usually the image result being the first result scanned, and then the results immediately above and below it. Rather than an “F”-shaped scan, this changes the pattern to an “E”-shaped scan, with the middle arm of the “E” focused on the graphic result.

The implications are interesting to consider. The engines and marketers have come to accept the top to bottom behavior as one of the few dominant behavioral characteristics, and it has given us a foundation on which to build our positioning strategy. But if the inclusion of a graphic result suddenly moves the scanning starting point, we have to consider our best user interception opportunities on a case-by-case basis.

Next week, I’ll look at further findings.

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