One of the best things about Google is the simplicity of its search results pages—clean, generally uncluttered and logical. Over the last couple of years these pages have seen some significant changes as Google bring new technologies to the table, with first Blended Search and more recently SearchWiki revelutionising the way we use the search pages.
It is therefore interesting to see some of Google’s own research into the impact of their changes on user behaviour, something I personally have only seen on studies such as those done by the likes of Enquiro.
In a post on the official Google blog, Google provided a glimpse of some of the research behind the pages the likes of me and you see every day. The testing which appears to be using the Bunnyfoot eye tracking tool, plots the eyefall on the search pages and thus how users potentially engage with the pages themselves. It is interesting to compare this research against previous research done in this area. One of the first eye-tracking studies highlighted the well known F-Shape eye scan on initial results:
The post from Google reinforces the traditional 10 contextual link behaviour with a high density of eye fall contained within the intial 3 or so results, however it should be noted the density of links varies throughout the results page itself—particularly when this is compared to results which incorporate blended search—most notably those with visual assets such as PR or Video.
One of the more interesting aspects of the post however was the reference to blended search:
We ran a series of eye-tracking studies where we compared how users scan the search results pages with and without thumbnail images. Our studies showed that the thumbnails did not strongly affect the order of scanning the results and seemed to make it easier for the participants to find the result they wanted.
The thumbnail image seemed to make results with thumbnails easy to notice when the users wanted them . . . and the thumbnails also seemed to make it easy for people to skip over the results with thumbnails when those results were not relevant to their search.
Much of these confirmed early studies (such as that between Enquiro/Google back in 2008), which discussed behavioural traits such as chunking and fencing, where blended search results were introduced. At the release of that report, blended search was still a new concept, and it would thus be interesting to compare any subsequent research to that of the earlier studies to identify whether familiarity has indeed altered users behaviour on blended search pages.
Google did not say whether these results incorporated any aspect of personalisation (certainly the SearchWiki functionality is not prevelant), as previous research has shown that this significantly impacts not only on the amount of time spent on the search pages but also on the number of fixations on the page as well as the number of clicks.
On a personal note, I feel that time spent in particular is important, as the search pages themselves effectively become the ‘new landing pages’. Further to this I am sure we will see a number of further studies to further establish how users interact with the search results, as these pages continue to evolve.
Peter Young is the SEO Manager at MVi and also runs the Holistic Search Marketing blog offering tips and advice on SEO, PPC and other aspects of Online Marketing.