Monday Mornings with Madison


Fact: Nearly all companies today want potential customers to find them when searching online for their particular products or services. In the world of Search, that often means the potential customer has done a Google, Yahoo/Bing or MSN search and “found” either a website, paid ad, landing page, or social media listing for the company. Being ‘found’ is very important. But is it enough just to be ‘found’… or do you really need to be ‘seen’?

In 2004, Cornell University did a study investigating how users interacted with a search engine results page using eye-tracking technology. It was not the first study ever done using eye tracking technology, but possibly one of the earliest looking at eye tracking for online search results. They were answering the question ‘what are people looking at on any given search results page?” The key word there was ‘look’… as in what the eyeballs fixate on and the brain recognizes and acknowledges. The study used a very small sample group of only 26 participants. The mean age of the subjects was 20 but a fairly close split of males and females. They analyzed behavior before the user would either exit the page or click on a link from the results. They looked at how rank influenced attention. Logically, the first position listing received the most attention, with eye fixation time decreasing sharply for each subsequent position 2 through 5. Then, after the fold (where the participant had to start scrolling) the fixation time for positions 6 to 9 was fairly consistent, with the last position having almost no fixation time. That study started what has become a thriving area of interest to marketers, managers and entrepreneurs everywhere.

Then, in 2006, Enquiro, EyeTools and Did It published a White Paper entitled “An Indepth Look At Interactions with Google Using Eye Tracking Methodology.” They were answering the same question: “What information do people look at specifically when Google delivers search results? Using similar eye-tracking technology, they examined the actual movement of an individual’s eyes across a screen as they scanned, scrolled, read, fixated, moved to another spot, read more, etc. when they viewed a Google results page for the first time. The audience was almost evenly split between males and females. However, the vast majority – 98% — were in the 20s to 40s age groups, 96% had at least a Bachelors degree or higher, and most used the Internet extensively every day. Also, over 53% of the target audience had annual incomes of $65K or higher.

In that paper, the researchers introduced the concept of the Google’s Golden Triangle, a theory that has since been examined, studied and discussed at length. In a nutshell, the Golden Triangle is the distinct area of eye-scan activity… a triangular pattern… that occurs in first-time visits to a results page. Consistently, upon landing on a Google results page, a person’s eye would zero-in on an area or zone shaped roughly like an upside-down right isosceles triangle.

The study concluded that if a listing (organic or paid) was not in the Google Golden Triangle, the odds of being seen by a searcher were dramatically reduced. In other words, even a listing on page one may be ‘found’ but not necessarily ‘seen’ unless it is in ‘the zone.’

Found But Not Seen?

Given that in the 1st Quarter of 2010, Google alone generated U.S.$2.04 Billion dollars through its Ad Sense Program (U.S. $8.16 Billion annualized – 30% of its revenue), clearly companies are spending a lot of money to be found and seen via paid search ads. To spend money to be ‘found’ but not be ‘seen’ is the equivalent of throwing advertising dollars away. Why did that happen? Those in real estate will recall the mantra: location, location, location. Even in search, that is true… at least in part. The location of each listing did matter.

The study compared a Google results page to a shopping mall. In a mall, there are usually two or three anchor tenants, evenly distributed throughout the mall, which ensures even foot traffic throughout the space.  All the tenants in the mall benefit from the foot traffic flowing from anchor tenant to anchor tenant. In a Google search, however, there is really one major anchor: the first listing in the organic or natural search results on page one. All other results benefit from proximity to that single anchor. If a mall had only one anchor store or all the anchor stores were clustered together, then the further that other stores were located away from the anchor tenant or tenants, the less foot traffic they would have… the less they would be ‘seen.’ The same thing was happening when people looked at a results page.

However, the Google Golden Triangle actually arises from a variable more important than listing placement. Another study conducted by the University of Tulsa around the same time as the Enquiro study showed that the reason that the first spot in the search results was the anchor was not only because of positioning (location in the top left spot), but also because of the effectiveness of Google as a search engine. How so? The study analyzed a series of factors to see what most influenced the click-through rate of listings. They looked at page position, presence of trusted brands, presence of trusted URLs, relevant words from the search queries in the listing titles, relevant words from the search queries in the listing descriptions, the presence of words like “review” and “consumer information”, etc. The number one factor precipitating a click through of a particular listing was actually relevant words from the search queries in the listing title; not listing location.

Position of the listing was important but secondary. Why? Basically, Google is good at getting the best listings to the top. People have grown to trust that. This was dubbed “The Google Effect.”  The high confidence level in Google caused most people to automatically click on the listings at the top of the page, which typically have the greatest number of relevant words from the search queries in the title… since that is part of how Google searches.  The more those listings were clicked, the higher those listings rank, which then reinforces the first position… re-earning the anchor position. People just naturally restricted their clicks to the area of the page most likely to have the best listings results, thus creating the Google Golden Triangle.

Much can be gleaned from those studies to help businesses make decisions for search engine optimization, paid search campaigns, paid search banner ads and web design. Here we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg of important findings and conclusions. Indeed, improvements in eye-tracking technology and the evolution of search have prompted more research and produced more results in recent years. It pays to look closely at new developments in design, positioning and listings to learn best practices and perhaps even a few universal truths. One thing is certain. Being found is good, but being seen is better… and for that, nothing beats location.

“Companies need to promote their sites and optimize them for the search engines. If your mentality is ‘build it and they will come,’ they’ll never find you!” Chris Consorte

© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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