“Don’t like the weather? Wait a few minutes. It’ll change.”
You can apply that joke to all sorts of things. Financial markets… politics… search engine results.
For example, here’s what Google search results looked like in 2000:
Here’s what they looked like in 2005:
And in 2010:
We’ve got about two months left until 2015. What will the search results look like then?
There are many forces shaping search results right now, and there have been many forces for a while. Everyone knows this. But predicting how those forces translate into behavior changes is trickier — even the best psychologists can only guess what their clients will do next.
Hardware certainly changes search behavior; mobile devices have already proven that. And wearables are sure to change search. Search technology absolutely changes how people use search engines, as we’ve seen after Google implemented Google instant (that autofill of keywords you see when you type in a search phrase). Content formats change search, too: Social media signals have become one of the most powerful ranking influences. And simply what we search for shapes search as well.
John Wiley, the lead designer for Google Search, has said 15 percent of all searches, every day, are for questions that have never been asked before. Ever.
Before I get too abstract, or pull out a crystal ball, let’s look at some facts. Fortunately, we’ve got plenty. The digital marketing company Mediative recently published an excellent eye-tracking study of Google search results. The study shows several clears shift in how people look at and interact with search results.
The Mediative study was structured like this: 53 people each did 43 different search tasks. All search tasks were conducted on a desktop. Then Mediative took what they found and compared it to a similar survey done in 2005 by Enquiro (“Google Eye Tracking Report: How Searchers See and Click on Google Search Results”), in order to show how things have changed.
The Golden Triangle of 2005
You’ll probably recognize one image from the 2005 Enquiro study immediately. It’s the “Golden Triangle” heat map of Google search results. The heat map is measured like a rainbow, with the red parts getting looked at the most and the purple edges getting looked at the least.
This one image had an enormous influence over web design and marketing for years. You, me and thousands of other marketers were urged to get our most valuable content into the golden triangle, both in the search engine results and on our own sites, too.
So what’s changed? Mediative’s findings fall into five main points:
1) Look For the “I” of Mobile
Mobile devices and new features Google has added to the top of the page have trained users to look up and down, in an “I” pattern, rather than in the old Golden Triangle pattern. Note that this viewing habit for mobile devices is so ingrained that it shows up even when people are on desktops — Mediative’s current survey was run entirely on desktops, not on mobile devices.
There is one exception to this, though: When the SERPs show only organic listings, Mediative found people fell back into the classic golden triangle eye tracking pattern. So this new “I” pattern for viewing has been caused as much by how Google has changed the results pages, as it’s been caused by mobile devices.
More interactive results, aka The Knowledge Graph (and paid ads) have moved organic search results far further down the page. Fortunately, at least according to the clicks Mediative tracked, the top organic search result is still getting 32.8 percent of clicks. That’s pretty much the same as the 2005 study and the same as other similar studies that measured clickthrough rates for different SERP positions.
It’s interesting the organic results are still doing so well, given how much Google has added to the top of the page. People still prefer the search listings over all the widgets near the top. This is an interesting effect of years of putting ads near the top of the page — just like mobile devices have shifted how we view information, so have ad positions. The classic example of this would be the invisible banner in a site header.
3) SERP Positions Two Through Four are Getting More Clicks than Before
About 30 percent more. This is good news for companies that are battling it out under position number one. You still definitely want to get your listings on to the first page of results, though: Mediative found a mere 1 percent of all clicks went to Page Two. Ouch.
4) “Right rail” Sponsored Ad Click-through Rates Have Been Crushed
While Mediative found almost no variation in clickthrough rates between 2005 and 2014 for the top three sponsored ads (the ads that appear at the top of the page, in the wide left column), the ads in the right rail have taken a body hit. Their clickthrough rates have fallen from 3.16 to 0.7 percent. It’s interesting how organic search has become less “winner take all,” but paid search is far more a “winner take all” game.
5) People Spend Less Time Looking at Each Listing
In 2005, searchers spent two full seconds looking at each search listing. Now they spend 1.17 seconds. There is an upside, though: Mediative reports their users saw more listings than their 2005 counterparts. So listings today might get less time in terms of attention, but there’s a better chance they’ll get noticed, even if it’s for just a moment.
Because of this change, making your listings telegraph their meaning has never been more important. Fortunately, we have markup language to make our search listings stand out. And given that you’ve got about half the time to convince a user to click as you used to have, it’s a good idea to use all the markup tricks available. That includes title and meta description tags, your Google Local listing, rich snippets and more. Unfortunately, as Mediative notes in their study, “only .3 percent of website use schema markup, yet over 33 percent of Google’s results contain rich snippets.” There’s still a huge opportunity here.
Want to know where search might end up in the next ten years? Read "6 Ways Search Might Change in the Next 10 Years." I'd love to hear your thoughts on the future of search in the comments.
Other images can be found in the Mediative study, "The Evolution of Google's Search Results Pages & Effects on User Behaviour."