Google makes a huge assumption – which could be wrong


Eye tracking studies show a fairly constant pattern of where we look on a web page. Essentially, most of our attention is focused top left. Then we scan to the right and then zig-zag back and forth to roughly half-way down the screen before we give up. It’s almost exactly the same way that we look at a newspaper, a book, a magazine or any document. And if we come from a part of the world where we read right-to-left, guess what, the eye tracking is completely mirrored.

There is not a lot new that web site eye tracking studies can actually tell us, in general terms. They are useful for specific web sites, though, as it helps you work out the best place to position key items of your offering. It especially helps web site owners ensure they minimise distractions.

Google does lots of eye tracking studies and as they highlight in a blog post today, few people actually go beyond the first four entries in the search results list. Being on the front page is not enough for search engine optimisation; you need to be in the top three or four.

Google uses eye tracking studies to help it present its search results in a more appropriate way for us. However, their blog today shows they are making false assumptions, which could mean their proposed changes may devalue what they do.

Here’s what they say in their blog: “They [users] start from the first result and continue down the list until they find a result they consider helpful and click it — or until they decide to refine their query.”

In other words, the first result – the one that Google’s algorithm supposedly reckons is the best answer to our question can get skipped in favour of a lower down result or in favour of better search terms. We’re all familiar with that – and so is Google. Few people actually find what they really want first time. And that means Google’s algorithm is not as good as they want it to be; otherwise we wouldn’t need to scan down the list or refine our search terms.

So it’s quite worrying then to read the next bit of the Google blog which says that the eye scanning result “suggests that the order in which Google returned the results was successful; most users found what they were looking for among the first two results and they never needed to go further down the page.”

If people did find what they were looking for in the first two results, why, as Google says, would they need to refine their search terms? Equally, for many people the results below the first four are what are called “below the fold” – you need to scroll to see them on many screens. And few people will do that if they do find what they are looking for in the first four results, or see from that first handful of results that the search term needs refining.

Google’s assumption that their search results are what people are looking for is false. It may be because users have found what they are looking for, but it may be because they haven’t and therefore need to search again. Importantly, the “heat maps” which show how much attention our eyes pay to the screen are the same “heat maps” you get for a newspaper pages and books. So it may be nothing at all to do with how good the search results are, but it may be a learned response to viewing text-based material; we are simply repeating an established behaviour.

Having said all this, Google is right that their eye tracking studies are vital to help them improve what they offer us. But they do themselves a disservice by making false assumptions about the results their studies produce.

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