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Eye-Tracking Study: How Searchers View SERPs on Google

The SERP (or “search engine results page”) is the Holy Grail of all SEO and SEM professionals. (Well, the first page is.) And deciphering how ordinary people read and analyze these pages is golden information for anyone who’s concerned about his or her business’ rank on the Google results page.

I really like eye-tracking studies; they’ve informed a lot about how I write my content–and how I teach others to write content as well. So whenever a new one’s out, I take a close look, because it could potentially change the way I do my job.

Canadian company Mediative recently published The Evolution of Google’s Search Results Pages & Effects on User Behaviour. It gives us an update on studies dating from 2005–and what an update it is!

As you’ll see in the following paragraphs, the changes in the eye-tracking heatmaps are quite striking. But we must remember how the Google SERP has itself changed in the last 10 years: the addition of maps, local results, thumbnails, etc. So with these changes–and other factors external to Google itself–came a different viewing behavior for those who search.

Let’s have a look.

How searchers look at SERPs

This is the SERP heat map in 2005.

Source: The Evolution of Google Search Results Pages and Their Effect on User Behaviour

This is what marketers have since called “the Golden Triangle”. Your chances of being clicked on dropped drastically if your link didn’t appear within that triangle.

In 2014, the heatmap looks radically different:

Source: The Evolution of Google Search Results Pages and Their Effect on User Behaviour

According to the report, this new heatmap is due to the increase in mobile searches and browsing; users are now much more used to look vertically rather than horizontally for the information they need. Also, the top organic result isn’t always at the top left anymore.

Interestingly, people view more search listings than before; however, they spend less time viewing each listing (1.17 seconds vs. 2 seconds). Users are looking for the best match to their search, and fast.

What this means

These new patterns have several effects for business. First, a mix of paid search and organic SEO will provide the best results. Having your listing show up at the top along with a good organic search position (1st or 2nd) increases your chance of click-throughs.

Front-loading keywords is also a good strategy, since users tend to look at the first few words to determine if the content is right for them. Don’t put relevant words at the end of your page title!

How local listings affect clicks

The study dives in other important aspects of SERPs and looks at how the new Google elements affects views and clicks. Local listings are most relevant to us here, so let’s have a look at the study results.

Source: The Evolution of Google Search Results Pages and Their Effect on User Behaviour

Even though the organic listings took the majority of the clicks, the time spent looking at the local listings was almost the same as the time spent looking at organic listings. It means that local listings garner a good deal of attention, even though they get fewer clicks.

However, since 76% of the participants looked at the local listings, it’s still a good thing to be included in them. In fact, being listed in the local listings AND in the organic results increases your chance of being clicked on.

What this means

There are 2 things you can do to improve your results if you’re a brick-and-mortar business. The first is to optimize your Google MyBusiness and Google+ profiles. Make sure all the information is correct and encourage people to write you reviews through Google. This will influence your position in the local listings.

The second thing to do is to work on your on-page SEO. Having both a local listing and a high position on the organic results will maximize your chances of a click, especially in the case where the local listings are located below the organic results. As mentioned above, front-loading your content with targeted keywords will help, as will other on-page SEO tactics.

How sponsored text ads capture attention and traffic

According to the study, click rates to sponsored text ads have changed very little in the past 9 years. The top 2 sponsored listings have a combined click-through rate of 14.5%.

What has changed, however, is the amount of clicks that the side rail receives. From 3.16% in 2005, it now receives a measly 0.7%.

Source: The Evolution of Google Search Results Pages and Their Effect on User Behaviour

These new results also support the idea that people now search vertically rather than horizontally. If your ad ends up in the right rail, might as well not be there at all!

Since the top 3 paid listings get the big majority of the clicks, you need to make sure to appear there when using a paid ad tactic. The criterion behind ad order is basically the same as the one behind organic listings: relevancy. Through its algorithm, Google decides how relevant your ad copy is to the searcher’s intent and places you in a certain position, just like with organic search.

What this means

If you use paid text ads, you want to be in the top 3 listings. This article from Google Support can tell you more about how to build an ad that meets their guidelines.

The study showed even better results when an ad in the top 3 is accompanied by a top 2 organic listing; again, you’ll want to have a strong SEO stratey to make it to the top of the SERP for your keywords.

Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil

Even though we’ve talked about major changes to the way users behave on the Google SERP, one thing is for sure: being in the top 4 organic listings and top 3 paid listings is still the best way to capture attention and clicks. Local listings, knowledge graphs and carousels may have stirred the pot, but in the end, users always look for relevant results.

Relevancy is and has always been the currency of search engines; you need to start seeing your SEO strategy in this perspective to be successful.