The Search Engine Results Page and User Behaviour

There is analogy I’d like to illustrate here with the help of the idea of ergonomics.

Literally translated from Greek as work laws, in the sense of the rules of interaction, ergonomics serves us to better understand how people interface with their physical surroundings. In words of the layman things have to be designed so that they look like what their function is. The rubberized plastic on a bread knife’s handle, coupled with the evenly spaced indentations clearly signal that it meant to be picked up and held firmly. Icons and buttons on a smartphone’s monitor are intentionally made to look like physical buttons you may find on another electronic device, like a remote control. Smartphones that gently vibrate after these virtual buttons are tapped is a hap-tic feedback that replaces the natural sense of touch had it been an actual button being pressed.

So ergonomics help us better design the world around us so that we interact more intuitively. This deduction of course stresses that the message of usability is communicated before the interaction starts.

So far though the given examples have been limited to physical objects. Can this principle be applied elsewhere more abstract? Perhaps Pay Per Click?

Let’s examine the typical Search Engine Results Page (SERP). Using Google as the search engine of choice one can enter practically any topical query and get results in the following layout: Up to three detailed PPC ads above organic search results with perhaps some more on the right. There may be some additional content helpfully provided, such as a Google maps insert or a list of related businesses with their contact details, but the basic layout stays the same.

It would be tremendously useful to have data on how people process SERPs. We could then apply the principle of ergonomics to our ads. That is if we know how people interface with AdWords then they can be designed in a manner that anticipates being read or ‘used’ for optimal comfort and engagement.

Luckily we do have something and it is called eye-tracking heat maps, which is data that shows what parts of a page receives the most attention. A number of studies and experiments have been performed on SERPs since it has gained prominence in the 2000’s using this technology. Some useful conclusions have been made. One of these is called the Golden Triangle and it is of vital importance to PPC.

When a user is presented with a SERP they examine the first result in its entirety so as to deduce the nature of both that particular result and to some extent all others. The second result also receives attention but less critically than the first, with the user often trailing off by the end of it. The third result garners less attention still. The Golden Triangle shape, or tilted pyramid if you prefer, illustrates this diminishing attention span. For the rest of the results the user alters their behavior to a pattern called the F-shape. While the most prominent results enjoyed user engagement latter results within the tail of the ‘F’ are surveyed quickly.

There are two types of reading techniques that are employed automatically by users looking for particular information, namely skimming and scanning. Skimming is orientated around themes and scanning is only focused on key words. We can deduce that skimming is employed for the top few results, when the theme of the SERP is still unknown, and scanning used for the rest.

What does this mean for PPC?

For one, if you are luckily enough get top of page rankings for your ad, or just bold enough to bid aggressively for that position, then the content of your ad has more leeway to be descriptive instead of being terse. On the other hand lesser ranked ads should forgo unnecessary details that would likely be ignored out of hand.

Google AdWords offers a number of ad extension options which when used increases the amount of content displayed to users, but only if that ad is displayed in one of the prominent positions. This is helpful because we already know that more content is readily consumed at the top of the page without one necessarily having to change the ad text itself.

Highlighted keywords gain more importance with lower ranked ads, which help your ad being noticed instead of passed over.

Even without the statistics and data on user behavior on SERPs there remains a bottom line on usability that is a core tenet of ergonomics. Design your ads so that you yourself would be compelled to click on them.

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