SEO and eye tracking for informational and transactional queries

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  • March 19, 2009
Patrick Altoft

Patrick Altoft

Director of Strategy

Understanding users’ behaviour and expectations for web search can be very valuable for site developers and web workers. While many SEO techniques rely on the actual actions of the user, for example mouse clicks or query streams, eye tracking can give us more detailed observations about how users actually interact with the information in front of them.

The fact that the top search results get the most attention from users is self-evident. But a study by Google backed up claims that strategies for scanning search results are different for different task types. These two task types are defined as transactional and informational. It means that you must understand which of these terms describes your website before deciding on SEO and SEM activity.

This is the standard and well known “Google Golden Triangle”Eye Tracking

You’ll notice an F shaped scan pattern. The eye tends to travel vertically along the left hand-side of the results, looking for relevant words and then scan to the right if something catches the user’s attention.

This is the eye-tracking result for a transaction-oriented query:
Eye Tracking Transactional

and for an information-oriented query:
Eye Tracking Informational

The difference is considerable, with the eye scanning further downwards along transaction oriented sites, looking for several options, and scanning across for information oriented ones, seeking more information about a particular result. These images present rather bad news for informative websites. While transaction oriented sites can afford to be further down the search listings, information-oriented sites cannot.

Microsoft conducted a similar study on how users respond to a set of search results. They also looked at two kinds of search tasks: navigational (where users are seeking a specific Web page) and informational (where users seek specific information). The analyses showed not only what people mainly look at, but also what they select. Of course, it is clicking rather than looking that has a major effect on the performance of a website.

This table illustrates the percentage of people who looked at the result (in black), versus those who clicked on it (in red).

Table

For navigational search, everyone looked at the first result. When the target was position 2, this dropped to 89%, then down to 56% for 8th, which isn’t so bad.

For informational search, the chance of looking at the item drops further from 94% for position 1, to 22% for position 8. Microsoft results correspond nearly exactly with Google’s triangles.

The decreased probability of clicking on the item is obviously related to the probability of looking at it. However, the dramatic fall for informational search from position 1 to position 2, is explained by the strong confidence users have in search engine performance. Participants were fairly likely to look at the results for position 2 and lower, but were extremely disinclined to click on them.

So what conclusions can be drawn for information-oriented websites? If people trust the ranking determined by search engines like Google more than their own judgement, we should actually optimise our websites for the “Big G”, not for the users. All we need to do is to look reliable as, when their goal is to acquire some kind of information, searchers generally don’t care where that information is found, so long as the destination site looks authoritative.

In light of these studies, it seems that I have no excuse anymore when my boss says that the position 3, or even position 2 in the SERPs isn’t good enough. He is right! Being in position 2 is worse by as much as 56% than being in position 1.

A SEO worker’s strategy for increasing traffic needs to be: Get to the top or die trying!

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