Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Natural Search Specialist
How do People See Universal Search Results?
Recently the folks at SEOMOZ released an eye-tracking study of Google’s search results pages. As you know, today’s results on Google aren’t just a list of ten hyperlinks with a descriptive snippet. “Universal search” results pages will show you maps if your search query has a local intent; if your search can benefit from an image, Google will show you image thumbnails at the top of the page. Google will even show you direct links to videos if it determines videos are relevant to your search.
Participants in the eye-tracking study were shown a variety of Google landing pages that included universal search results like the ones mentioned above. The most surprising finding was the participant’s attraction to the so-called “map pack” that Google displays in local-intent results. For example, when you do a search for “pizza” Google will most likely show you several local pizza places, as shown below:
According to the eye-tracking study, the map pack links in a search like this received a lot of eye-tracking, as did the map image on the upper right side of the page.
Similarly, a stack of video thumbnails on a results page also got a lot of eyeballs. A search like “how to make a pizza” returned a couple of video results, and the eye-tracking study found that most people ogled the video thumbnails:
So what’s to do? Everyone’s looking at map results and video thumbnails! Should you change your site to an all local-address, all-video format? Well, we think that’s not such a great idea, and here’s why:
First of all, we need layered click-through data to make this eye-tracking study more useful. Yes, people in the study were looking in certain places on the page more than others, but were they clicking the links? The universal search results return items that Google thinks are relevant to the search query. If people click the map and video links more often, Google has guessed right. If not, then there’s space on the results page that’s not being used.
Secondly, the eye-tracking results revealed a fact most people learn in Graphic Design 101: human eyes will always be drawn to focal points.
For example, check out the following work of art:
Did you see that black dot? I bet you couldn’t miss it. The rest of the rectangle is a boring white color, and the black dot is the only item that breaks up the monotony. That’s why when you look at the rectangle, the black dot acts as a magnet for your eyes, drawing them inexorably towards that single focal point.
The same thing appears to be happening in this eye-tracking study; the “map pack” and the video/image thumbnail results act as focal points in an otherwise boring and indistinguishable list of results. No wonder people are looking at these items more often; they’re likely going to be the first thing visitors look at, simply because that’s how our eyes work. They will automatically identify and move to the focal points of any framed object.
No doubt the good people at Google are aware of this and may be on their way towards consciously working focal points into their results page layout. At the current time, however, there’s no call to start re-designing your site. Maintaining your local presence on Google, keeping your Google Places page up to date, and ensuring that your image and video contents are properly indexed will give you the best chances to appear on results pages.