Search Behaviour Is Not What You Have Been Told


Search engine specialists like to remind us constantly that people almost never look beyond the first three or four items on a search results page. Indeed, the whole notion of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is to get your site to “Number One” for your keywords or, at the very least, to get you into the top five. The mantra from search specialists is that 95% of people stick to the top handful of results, never looking beyond them or scrolling down a page.

So, there are a couple of questions you need to ask about this so-called “fact” of search behaviour. Firstly, where do the “search experts” get their data from? And secondly, if it were really true why would search engines provide us with more than one page of results? Indeed, why would they give us ten on a page if most of us never went beyond the top five? Perhaps the search engines know something that the search experts do not. Perhaps the search engines know that people DO go further than the top five results and that they do turn over the page.

The notion that the vast majority of people never look beyond the top five results comes mostly from eye-tracking research demonstrating where people look on a search results page. The maps of eye movements show quite clearly that no-one in those studies looks down the page. Their eyes are focused on the top five results, with most of that activity on the top three.

But here’s the problem with making snap judgements on eye-tracking studies like this. The research on Google search results pages show that no eyes ever look at the sponsored links. The adverts which Google helpfully places on the right hand side of each results page get virtually zero attention. Well, how come then Google earned $28 billion last year as a result of us clicking on them…? If we did not see them, how come we clicked on them? What eye-tracking studies do is show where our pupils are pointed – they do not show where our brain was looking, nor do they show what our peripheral vision sees. In other words, don’t rely on eye-tracking to tell you what we do online – it is only part of the story.

Another factor in the myth of the “top five” search results being important is the information companies see on their analytics data. When a firm drills down into this data they frequently find that people are visiting pages from search engines when those pages do not even appear on the front page of the results, let alone in the top five. If people never went beyond the top five, how come so many people visit sites from search engine links when those links are not on the first page?

It all suggests that the behaviour that “search specialists” claim that people are making is not entirely based on all the facts. Yes, there is a “tendency” for people to concentrate on the top five search results but they are not the be-all and end-all for you.

This is all revealed in a recent survey which shows that 95% of people go BEYOND the top five results on a search page. In fact 70% of people go further than the first page, with 15% of people going through the FIRST FIVE PAGES of the results. Now, I admit, this is not a completely scientific study – but then the claims that we ONLY look at the top five results are not based on exact science either.

The lack of scientific rigour on the SEO claims of needing to be in the top five, the analytics data from several businesses and this new survey show that focusing on being high up in the search results may not be as important as we once thought.

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