Why search results don’t work

Search is most used resource for local business onlineHow many times have you already searched for something online today? Once, twice, half a dozen? Most of us actually search a lot more than we think; Google handles over 5 billion search requests EVERY DAY and 15% of them are for search terms they have never seen before. With an estimated 300m people using Google each day, it means that we are searching around 15 to 20 times each day and that each of us will be typing in a couple of search terms that the search engines have never previously encountered. Is it any wonder that search is not as accurate as we might think it is?

However, there is another problem with search – the way the search engines present the results to us. How many of those results do you actually see? Most search engines will provide you with 10 results per page, unless you have changed the settings to provide a higher number. But your eyes cannot see all 10 results; you take in only a couple at a time.

And what happens when you see a potentially useful result – you click on it. As a result you do not see something on the search results page that may be more helpful or appropriate to you.

Even if you do scroll down, you may not see the other results if you have already seen something useful that you are already thinking of clicking on. This is known as “attentional blindness” – your attention is temporarily switched off because you feel you have already found what you need.

Now, new research, suggests the problem is greater than at first thought. When we see something in a blink of an eye – around 200ms – after we have seen the original thing we are looking for, we don’t notice it. In other words, when you see a search result the looks potentially interesting you are almost never going to see an alternative.

This has two issues. It means we tend to accept the first potentially useful result we see- which may not be the best one, of course. Secondly, it means if you are trying to gain traffic from search engines it suggests that being anything less than number one on those results is almost worthless.

The answer, though is easy: Google should present results one at a time. You will then not suffer from “attentional blink” and if you are trying to gain visitors you could gain more because people will click through more results.

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2 thoughts on “Why search results don’t work”

  1. Fascinating Graham. This certainly bears out my own experience of using search.
    It also leads me to wonder about the value of adwords and paying to have your ad appear alongside natural search results. If most users only ‘see’ one or two natural search results (or the paid ads that appear above them) what’s the point in paying anything to appear anywhere else on the results page?

    • That’s a good point Mark – I hadn’t thought about the impact on pay per click. I suspect that the only people really deriving any significant benefit from AdWords are the folks at Google.

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