Personalization Catches the User’s Eye

First published September 13, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I looked at the impact the inclusion of graphics on the search results page might have on user behavior, based on our most recent eye tracking report. This week, we look at the impact that personalization might bring.

One of the biggest hurdles is that personalization, as currently implemented by Google, is a pretty tentative representation of what personalization will become. It only impacts a few listings on a few searches, and the signals driving personalization are limited at this point. Personalization is currently a test bed that Google is working on, but Sep Kamvar and his team have the full weight of Google behind them, so expect some significant advances in a hurry. In fact, my suspicion is that there’s a lot being held in reserve by Google, waiting for user sensitivity around the privacy issue to lessen a bit. We didn’t really expect to see the current flavor of personalization alter user behavior that much, because it’s not really making that much of a difference on the relevancy of the results for most users.

But if we look forward a year or so, it’s safe to assume that personalization would become a more powerful influencer of user behavior. So, for our test, we manually pushed the envelope of personalization a bit. We divided up the study into two separate sessions around one task (an unrestricted opportunity to find out more about the iPhone) and used the click data from the first session to help us personalize the data for the search experience in the second session. We used past sites visited to help us first of all determine what the intent of the user might be (research, looking for news, looking to buy) and secondly to tailor the personalized results to provide the natural next step in their online research. We showed these results in organic positions 3, 4 and 5 on the page, leaving base Google results in the top two organic spots so we could compare.

Stronger Scent

The results were quite interesting. In the nonpersonalized results pages, taken straight from Google (in signed out mode) we saw 18.91% of the time spent looking at the page happened in these three results, 20.57% of the eye fixations happened here, and 15% of the clicks were on Organic listings 3, 4 and 5. The majority of the activity was much further up the page, in the typical top heavy Golden Triangle configuration.

But on our personalized results, participants spent 40.4% of their time on these three results, 40.95% of the fixations were on them, and they captured a full 55.56% of the clicks. Obviously, from the user’s point of view, we did a successful job of connecting intent and content with these listings, providing greater relevance and stronger information scent. We manually accomplished exactly what Google wants to do with the personalization algorithm.

Scanning Heading South

Something else happened that was quite interesting. Last week I shared how the inclusion of a graphic changed our “F” shaped scanning patterns into more of an “E” shape, with the middle arm of the “E” aligned with the graphic. We scan that first, and then scan above and below. When we created our personalized test results pages, we (being unaware of this behavioral variation at the time) coincidentally included a universal graphic result in the number 2 organic position, as this is what we were finding on Google.

When we combined the fact that users started scanning on the graphic, then looked above and below to see where they wanted to scan next with the greater relevance and information scent of the personalized results, we saw a very significant relocation of scanning activity, moving down from the top of the Golden Triangle.

One of the things that distinguished Google in our previous eye tracking comparisons with Yahoo and Microsoft was its success of keeping the majority of scanning activity high on the page, whether those top results were organic or sponsored.

Top of page relevance has been a religion at Google. More aggressive presentation of sponsored ads (Yahoo) or lower quality and relevance thresholds of those ads (Microsoft) meant that on these engines (at least as of early 2006) users scanned deeper and were more likely to move past the top of the page in their quest for the most relevant results. Google always kept scan activity high and to the left.

But ironically, as Google experiments with improving the organic results set, both through the inclusion of universal results and more personalization, their biggest challenge may be in making sure sponsored results aren’t left in the dust. Top of page scanning is ideal user behavior that also happens to offer a big win for advertisers. As results pages are increasingly in flux, it will be important to ensure that scanning doesn’t move too far from the upper left corner, at least as long as we still have a linear, 1 dimensional top to bottom list of results.

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