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Top paid search results aren’t always the best

You’ve probably seen this famous heat map from the Enquiro eye tracking study.

Here it is:

Up at the top is what has become known as The Golden Triangle — the area where people consistently look at the results.

Gord Hotchkiss is the CEO of Enquiro, Canada’s leading search engine marketing firm and one of the top firms in North America.

Gord did a followup entry on his Out of my Gord blog. This study tracked which paid search results (sponsored results) people looked at and clicked.

What Gord noticed is that on all three major search engines (Yahoo, MSN and Google), the vast majority of people first glanced at the top sponsored listings. On Yahoo, 84% of the first fixations were on the top sponsored when they appeared, on Google it was 81%, and on MSN it was 87%. So, almost 9 out of every 10 people start looking at the search results page by at least glancing at the top sponsored ad.

Next up was what Gord calls active scanning, measuring when people start reading a listing. On Google and Yahoo, there was strong correlation with the first fixation point, with 79% of the first reading activity on top sponsored for Yahoo, and 71% for Google. MSN was another story. While 87% of participants first glanced at the top sponsored ads, only 55% started reading there. Almost 32% of our participants immediately relocated past the sponsored ads.

Finally, they recorded where the clicks actually happened. In Google’s case, 26% of the clicks happened in the top sponsored ads, with Yahoo it was 30%, and MSN came in with 17% click through on top sponsored.

The conclusion? On Google, although over 80% of searchers started in the top sponsored, only 26% found something relevant and compelling enough to click on, and remember, these were commercial, product oriented searches. On Yahoo, 84% started in top sponsored, but in Yahoo’s case, about 30% stuck around and clicked an ad. And with MSN, something entirely different was going on. It seems that MSN users have a bad case of banner blindness when it comes to top sponsored ads.

Here’s the part I found interesting (I added the emphasis):

The reason top sponsored ads are effective is because they’re placed in the highest traffic portion of the page. We orient ourselves in the page on the upper left. Our destination is the top organic ad. Top sponsored ads are placed in the middle of the most popular real estate on the SERP. This is shown by the high percentage of fixations that happen in this section.

But our interactions with the SERP are not all about position. We can, very quickly, determine if what’s there is relevant to what we’re looking for. We quickly scan titles to see if the ads presented match our intent. And when I say quickly, I’m talking fractions of a second. We start picking up relevancy without even having to read the listings by determining scent. If the listing has “scent” and it’s a good match, we’ll not only hang around and start scanning the listing, we may even click on it. Otherwise, we do what we intended to do in the first place and skip down to the organic listings.

I think the concept of scent is an interesting one. Google uses scent (it uses clickthrough rate as well as bid price) to determine your position in paid search results.

Let’s back up to these statistics:

Finally, we recorded where the eventual clicks happened. In Google’s case, 26% of the clicks happened in the top sponsored ads, with Yahoo it was 30%, and MSN came in with 17% click through on top sponsored.

So having the top position means people will look at your ad. As far as clickthrough is concerned, 74% of Google clicks were outside the top sponsored area, 70% for Yahoo! and 83% for MSN.

The point? If you’re not relevant, all the studies on ad positioning aren’t going to help you. Conversely, if you’re a little further down the list (and probably on the first page) and more relevant, you will get clicked.

This seems intuitively true.

1. We scan results because we scan everything.
2. We look at the top few sponsored results. If they seem totally off we ignore the rest. Same with regular search results.
3. We look at search results skeptically and try to find something that best matches what we’re looking for.
4. If nothing’s relevant, we go away.

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