Search behaviour is not what you have been told

Search ResultsSearch 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.

Search behaviour is not what you have been told 1

4 thoughts on “Search behaviour is not what you have been told”

  1. Hi Graham
    I hope you’re well and I think you’re right.
    So much depends on what people are looking for and why they’re looking for it; this is something the eye-tracking surveys never really encompassed – those tests were done in a way that, I suspect, had the effect of circumventing peoples’ natural search habits ie if you’re interested in something – specific or general, in a hurry or not – you’ll search in ‘your’ way but if I sit you down in a test and are asked to search for ‘blah blah’ you’re not interested in the results other than in the exam sense of ‘I’ve finished!’.
    More website owners and SEOs should concentrate on the meta titles… it’s where you can gain the competitive advantage – even when you’re behind in the SERPs.
    PS At time of writing T Marketing website isn’t up but will be in next few days!

    • Thanks Gideon – that’s another point well worth considering; the eye-tracking studies are almost always on test conditions and not necessarily reflecting the “real world”. In research terms you have to question their “ecological validity”.

  2. Hi Graham, interesting article. I think we probably have some more accurate data – 42% of all people will go to the 1st ranked web site and go no further. 27% to the 2nd site, 20% to the third site and then a decreasing number down the top 10.

    This is an average taken across a wide range of keywords and industries, so am sure that it will skew wildly dependent on the search term.

    If someone is looking for info / research, it stands to reason that they will visit many more sites in an effort to get as much info as possible – if they are looking to buy a book , and the first website has it in stock and at a good price, chances are that’s the end of their journey.
    The other factor which drives the number of sites people visit is the overall search volume is the number of searches on a keyword.
    So searchterms with massive volumes behind them will see your site on the 2nd page still pick up some traffic ( think one word and two word search terms ).
    More long tail specific terms rarely get traffic get past the 1st page.

    All the best,


    • Thanks for the additional info Shaun. I think you raise a good point about the length of search terms and their relationship to depth of searching – that’s something the studies I wrote about did not investigate. Also I think you raise another valid issue, which is the motivation behind the search. It is all a much more complex area than many “search gurus” would have us believe…!

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