Search engines are now blending what they consider important results with the established listings on search engine results pages (SERPs). Placing relevant information, often in the form of video, social media or shopping results, between the listings is just the start of what will be a radical change in the way the SERP looks in the future.
Eye-tracking initially uncovered the now famous ‘heat map’ of where searchers eyes tended to rest during their entry of search queries into Google, Bing etc. Eye movements were extremely definite, with groupings being strongest at the top left of the page, on position 1 of the organic search. ‘Heat’ was spread down the page by around 3-4 organic listings, diminishing heavily in the process. People also scanned up a little onto the top 2-3 paid advertising slots, with another pronounced scan horizontally to the right from the organic position 1. The result was a faint ‘F’ shaped heat distribution.
In the post-blended world, orientation largely did not start from the top organic position. People initially focussed in on the graphic thumbnail embedded into the results by the search engines. Searcher’s eyes then proceeded to scan from that location.
Further research found that images in the SERPs caused searchers to mentally divide up the page. It seemed as if people were extending mental boundaries aligned with the edges of the blended images, from which further scanning would be performed. Our eyes, used to swinging up to the top left became interested in the image to see if it was relevant, divisions of the page then occurring. As our brains become more used to the search engines introducing us to new indented results we may begin to increasingly ignore them, but for now the effect is strong. The resulting heat map represented an ‘E’ shape, the centre of the E being the image. What was a powerful top left bias pre-blended results, was now dramatically lessened due simply to the presence of an image.
When more tests were done on the exact placement of an image on the SERP people’s eyes tended to become fenced in to some degree. Images placed in the centre had the strongest corralling effect, with the least movement of eyes below the mental line drawn horizontally across the SERP from the top edge of the image/ graphic insert. As image placements moved up the top half of the page so did the corralling of sight spots above.
Interestingly, at the same time eye movement became more likely to skip down over the mental line drawn in our heads, to move down the left had side of the page.
Studies on which parts of the brain have electrical nerve activity have led us to believe images appeal to us much more than text owing to an emotional, rather than abstract or logical attachment.
Tests done on the introduction of both universal search and personalised search tended to draw eyes to the largest mass of these results.
As internet marketers what has become clear is that we can’t assume , as in the past, that gaining listings on the very top of the page’s results leads to the largest searcher interest. Introductions of extra graphical, relevant search results to the SERP can radically change the traditional top to bottom, left to right scanning motions. If you are able to get an image into the results mores the better. If you see a competitor’s image on the first page of the search engine results, you should carefully consider where you want to rank.
Similarly, don’t expect search engine interfaces to reach a standard any time soon, if anything more testing will be done by said search engines, expect interfaces to increase in differentiation over the next few years.
Saying that, top page relevancy is something the search engines are aiming for. The balance between organic and paid results in the search engines will always be such that neither should draw too much attention from the other.