January 04, 2006

Search Engine Marketing: Top Five Eye-Tracking Laboratory Test Results

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By Anne Holland, President

In 2005 three landmark search eye-tracking studies were conducted. Search engine marketing firm Enquiro ran the first tests on Google specifically, then MarketingSherpa's research team followed up with comparative tests on other major search engines such as MSN and Yahoo!. We also conducted a study of major shopping engines such as Shopping.com.

Turns out that when your customers and prospects search on Google, Yahoo!, or any other engine, their eyes view the results screen in a predictable series of involuntary reactions.

That's right--eye-tracking lab tests can predict what most people's eyes will do when they look at search results. You can learn if your ad copy will catch attention (or not). You can also discover how your position on the results page will catch attention. (Do you need to be the first ad on the page, or is it okay to be farther down?)

Plus, you can discover how consumers view paid listings (such as the PPC ads you can run on Google) vs. the way they review the organic listings (the editorial results that show up without cost to the marketer).

Here are five of the top-line research discoveries from the studies (also see below for a link for more details):

1) Incredibly short attention span: 0.7 seconds:

As you probably guessed, no searcher looks at every single search result on a page. People's eyes skitter around seeking the most interesting and relevant listings and ads to read. For us the shocking discovery was how little time a searcher actually spent looking at an ad or listing once he decided to actually focus on it.

Two-thirds of the consumers studied looked at a typical result for only 0.7 seconds (that's less than an entire second). Search results are generally very short--perhaps 20 words in all including headline, body copy, and click link. But even at that length, it would take more than 0.7 seconds to read all that copy properly.

Doesn't matter -- consumers don't both reading the copy properly. They don't read every word you've written. They make click or not-click decisions on a microsecond's worth of reading time.

2) Copywriting really matters:

Since you have only that microsecond of time, copywriting search marketing ads may be one of the most challenging copy assignments on the planet. A 15-second TV spot is insanely luxurious by comparison.

MarketingSherpa has gathered anecdotal data about what's worth testing for your search ad copywriting from our case studies of real-life campaigns. In addition to displaying the actual search term in your headline (something so many marketers are doing now that it may lose effectiveness in 2006) best copy tactics to test include:

- Use of bold - Words and capitalization within your visible click link - Displaying actual prices - Featuring a phone number - Writing in keyword phrases rather than sentences

3) The role of organic vs. paid listings:

If you think you're covered because you have a paid ad (PPC listing) in a search engine for a search term that's important to your business, think again. Organic results (free listings) are far more important and can get more viewership and clicks.

Experienced search marketers have known this for years. That's why if their search budget is limited, they focus first on gaining the best organic listings they can for a wide range of targeted key terms. Mainstream marketers, however, are only now starting to catch on. This partially explains why marketers spent $5.5 billion on paid listings in 2005 compared with just $660 million on optimization for organic listings.

MarketingSherpa's research team expects to see optimization crack $1 billion at long last in 2006.

4) Multiple listings improve results:

Eye-tracking data revealed that if you show up in just one place on a results page, your campaign may not be truly effective.

That's because people's eyes are skimming results so quickly that if they don't see your one listing, you won't get a second chance. Plus, not everyone reads and clicks on search results in the same way. In fact, there are five specific patterns consumers tend to use depending on where they are in the sales/educational cycle:

- The Quick Click - The Linear Scan - The Golden Triangle Scan - The Deliberate Scan - The Pickup Search

5) Only shopping engines get right-column attention:

Consumers tend to view different search engines' results in slightly different ways. which makes sense because every search engine lays out results in a slightly different format. That said, one factor applied across the board for major search engines: Almost no searchers look at the right side of the page.

This result is of critical concern to search engine advertisers because the vast majority of paid ads appear in that far right column on most engines. Again this points out the need for you to be in the organic listings (which are on the left side of the page) and for you to never rely on a right-side ad alone to catch attention on the search terms most important for your business.

Interestingly, although we hadn't expected to see a big difference between shopping engine eye-tracking lab results and traditional search engine eye-tracking results, it turns out that for shopping engines the right column is different. Most consumers still spend most of their eye time on the left column. A significant number of them, however, also view the top right column results on shopping search.

Why? It may be because consumers using shopping engines are in a different stage of the buying cycle. They may be slightly more serious about evaluating the results on the page, so they're willing to look harder. It may also be due to the way shopping engines such as Shopzilla and NexTag lay out their results page.

No matter the reason, the results data (presented in colorful eye-tracking "heat maps") is fascinating.

Useful link related to this article

For more results data on the search engine eye-tracking tests MarketingSherpa conducted this fall, go to: http://www.sherpastore.com/Search-Marketing-Benchmark-SEO-PPC.html

Article mentioned above, "Lab Data: How Humans' Eyes Really See Email Marketing Campaigns" http://www.marketingsherpa.com/article.php?ident=27193

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