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Google’s Top Spots No Longer Top Dogs

Visual Content Increasingly Key To Search Success

According to user experience gurus Neilsen Norman Group, Google’s evolving search engine results are leading to radical shifts in search behaviour.

A recent study suggests that dominating Google’s top spots won’t bring the results of yesteryear. Alongside demonstrating the importance of capitalising on Google’s featured snippets (or similar) and exploiting visual opportunities within search.

Nowadays, Google search engine results are choc-a-bloc with everything, bar organic website links.

Results pages are packed with ads, videos, images, featured snippets, Knowledge Graphs, maps, shopping results and much more.

The continuously evolving layout of the search engine results pages (SERP) is shaping how people search, with each new feature affecting the distribution of users' attention on the page.

From Linear Searching To “Pinballing”

In the old days of web search, users would reliably focus their attention on the first few results at the top of the page and would sequentially move from result to result down the list.

Hence the importance of dominating top spots for Google Ads and SEO.

In the first edition of Neilsen Norman’s How People Read on the Web report, published around 20 years ago, they found that in 59% of cases, people scanned the SERP sequentially, from the first results to the second, and so on, without skipping any results or looking at the right side of the page.

That linear SERP pattern still exists today, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Now it appears to be the weight of the images within results pages that drives attention.

People scan the patterns, according to the study, hence the idea that searchers “pinball” around the page, drawn visually from one element to the next.

Visual Pinballing Upshot For Marketers

In better understanding what draws searchers' gaze and attention within search engine results marketers can alter activity to suit.

On the paid side of things, more and more Google Ads units are introducing visual elements, slowly moving away from the traditional text-based only design.

Google ad extensions sometimes have visual aspects to them, such as price extensions and promotions extensions.

For retailers, Shopping Campaigns and Showcase Shopping ads are highly visual.

While Local Campaigns can bring in visual elements via Google Maps.

On the organic side of search, marking up visual elements on site with structured data will help images display better within search and Google Images.

Likewise, marking up video will help on-page videos display more clearly both in search results and within video boxes.

Formatting webpage content so that it can render correctly within Google’s range of snippets is also a must.

Sitting Lower In Search Isn’t The End Of The World

Because search-results pages are now so inconsistent from query to query, users are often forced to assess the page before digging in and making a selection. That means that the layout of a SERP can determine which links get visibility and clicks.

Yet, people are reasonably fast in choosing a search result; the study found that users spent an average of 5.7 seconds considering results before they made their first selection.

Although it’s fair to say they’re far more considered than in years gone by.

For example, Neilsen Norman’s eye-tracking research in 2010 found that in 59% of cases, people didn’t look beyond the 3rd result on the page. However, in more recent studies, they found that even the 6th position received looks in 36% of cases.

Google’s Top Spots Don’t Win Like They Used To

Back in 2006, the first result on any given results page received 51% of clicks.

In contrast, this latest study found that the first position on a SERP (defined as the first item listed under the search box) received only 28% of clicks, almost half.

A dramatic change in user behaviour within the short time of only about a decade.

59% of clicks were concentrated in the first three positions, but lower positions received slightly more clicks than in 2006.

As long as you appear near the top (within the first 5 results), you may have around a 10–20% chance of getting a click and anywhere from a 40–80% chance of getting a look.

While a top listing isn't make or break in search results, being on the first page still is.

Hence the old Google page 2 gag still probably stands true.

Check out the complete study here.


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