Study Says Get In Top 5 Not Top 10 & Search Engines May Need To Highlight Official Sites

On Friday, we reported briefly on a new eye tracking study from Microsoft on how users interact with search results. I spent some time doing a deep dive into the survey, which is full of interesting information. Among the findings is that search marketers may need to be more concerned about getting into the top five rather than the top ten, if they want to be seen. In addition, search engines might want to seriously experiment more with adding "official site" links at the top of their pages and possibly enlarge the size of listing descriptions or "snippets" to help searches find what they are looking for.

The study from Microsoft Research can be found here in PDF format. The survey was very small, involving only eighteen people from ages 18 to 50. The small number makes me worry a bit on how much I want to trust some of the conclusions. Still, it’s a start, and many of the questions were well thought out and tested.

Those in the survey were assigned both navigational tasks (find the homepage of something like the World Cup 2006 site) or informational tasks (find when the Titanic set sail). Answers to all questions were listed within the results they received. They were all "moderately experienced" at web search.

Part of the test was to see how people interacted with results if they were given different lengths of listing descriptions or snippets, to use the Google term. People looked at short (one line), medium (two to three lines) and long (six to seven lines) snippets.

The study watched where people looked and also measured the time they spent on a task along with their click accuracy — did they find the best answer?

Heat Maps & Eye Tracking

Where people looked provided no revelations:

First, confirming previous findings, we found that people viewed search results in a roughly linear order. Most gaze activity was directed at the first few items; items ranked lower got users’ attention last and least.

The heat map below is one example of how people scanned:

MSN Search Eye Tracking

Interesting, the pattern is different that the "golden triangle" that Enquiro has long talked about in its eye tracking studies, where you see all the red along the horizontal line of the top listing (indicating a lot of reading there), then less on the second listing, then less still as you move down. That’s because in this particular case, the seventh listing was the "right" answer plus, as the study explains, the longer than normal descriptions got people to read more.

Reviewing The Top Five

The study also looked at what people viewed before making a click. IE, did people review all 10 items listed? Only the first three? Did they review everything in order until they spotted a choice and clicked? The survey found people often reviewed one or two items past the item they eventually clicked on:

no matter what result they eventually clicked on, our participants usually looked at the first 3 or 4 search results. When they clicked on the first or second result, they still looked at the first 4 results. When they clicked on lower ranked results, they usually had looked at most of the items ranked above them. Finally, people go through about 8 results on a page before changing their queries without clicking on anything (indicated by “Requery

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Search Features: General | SEO: Titles & Descriptions | Stats: Search Behavior


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Search The Web 2

    In discussing the second grapth, you wrote that “the first long line dropping down shows that on average, participants reviewed at least eight results”. This is not correct statement. What we understand is that people go through about eight results on a page without selecting anything before changing their queries. So these eight results are applied only to the case of query change.

    Other interesting point is that no data on the result-9 selection. What does this mean?

  • ★ ★ SearcH EngineS WeB ★ ★

    The Eye is intuitively attracted to whatever is ATTRACTIVE

    The pastel background color placed behind the sponsor links…ATTRACTS

    The BOLD that Google adds to urls, Title and Description keywords – that match the keywords of the search queries…ATTRACTS

    Also the eye notices KEYWORDS, but may gloss over STOPWORDS in the description – so efficiency is the new norm

    Also Capitalization appears to ATTRACT – but too much appears intimidating

    The new MAP links added by Google to some listings …ATTRACT

    The Local Listings defauting on the top of the Organic SERPS …ATTRACT -
    and since they include the phone numbers – they may trigger an action, without even clicking on their sites.

    Also the environment someone is in and the amount of competing for attention behavior affect their reactions.

    A busy office will trigger a different response from a surfer than a quiet evening at home.

    Therefore AOL DEFAULT surfers are different form MSN DEFAULT surfers – AND CERTAINLY are different from Google surfers!

  • Gord Hotchkiss


    Thanks for the insightful review. However, after spending way more time than I should have looking at eye tracking results, there are some things that should be considered in the analysis. Please see the following post

  • Gord Hotchkiss

    And some follow up comments for SearcH EngineS Web..

    “The Eye is intuitively attracted to whatever is ATTRACTIVE”

    Yes and no. Relevancy is more important than physical attractiveness on the SERP. We have a different scanning interaction.

    “The pastel background color placed behind the sponsor links…ATTRACTS”

    Actually, no. In fact, if too prominent, it can have the opposite effect, setting the results apart as a sidebar and causing banner blindness.

    However, I do agree with your other points in your comments. I just wanted to put out these two, based on our research.

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