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User Behavior: Ready, Aim, Convert

Marianne Sweeny

This is my second in a series of posts on the foundation theories that make up user experience. In the last post, we looked at mental models and the importance of putting components where your users are used to seeing them (because they won't look around for that wonderful new spot that you think is a better location).

This week, we're going to look at how users interact with the content on the page. Oh, and how Google has manipulated this for their Page Layout Algorithm. 

In the early 1980s, George Furnas of Bell Laboratories made the "fish eye view" popular. He surmised that visitors to a page have a sharp, yet limited focus on the center of the page. If what they want is not found there, the user's focus tends to drift up and over before exiting the page. The user has a determined focus; everything else on the page becomes diffused. Design Challenge: to keep focus while remaining in context.

In 2004, Mark Hurst developed the theory of the Page Paradigm that stipulates the user has two actions when landing on a page: 1) click something that takes them closer to fulfilling their goal, and 2) depart the page. Both have emerged as very useful concepts for ranking in search results.

Eye tracking and click data support these theories. Notice the user focus on page center then the top of page navigation in the Eyequant example below.

Eyequant homepage 

The Portent homepage heat map click data shows that users have little patience to explore what's on the page unless enticed to do so. In both examples, users pick a focal point at the center of the page and exhibit little patience if there is not some indication that the answer they seek can be found on the site.

Portent homepage 

With the Panda update, Google started tiptoeing into the realm of user experience as an incorruptible way of determining relevance to query. After all, who needs to worry about user experience professionals reverse engineering anything more complicated than a ham sandwich? And, Google found fertile territory for algorithmic breakdown of human behavior. Panda begat many updates that broadened the “content quality” focus to that of content location and, with Hummingbird, query content revision.

Bill Slawski does a great job of deconstructing the search engine focus on page layout and user behavior in "How a Search Engine Might Identify the Functions of Blocks in Web Pages to Improve Search Results." What Google has done is bring back user experience concepts long ago dismissed by professionals in this field, e.g., the fold. The now familiar diagram below legitimized Google’s mandate to put core content front and center.

Google's Page Layout Algorithm 

Despite the boa constrictions of Google's Page Layout Algorithm, you take the time to figure out what the page is about, how it relates to other pages about the same thing (or entity, as Google likes to call them), why users are coming to the page and what the ones that stay do when they get there. Then you make sure the purpose is represented by text in the area that Google has designated as most relevant and supported by outlinks to contextually relevant resources with these links placed in close proximity (view) to the highlighted content.

Here are my go-to guidelines for user experience-focused page design optimized for search visibility:

  • Each page should have a goal (as in single) that is obvious, understandable and supported.
  • The center of the page, above the fold, should be occupied by text or text over transparent image. Bonus points if the text to content ratio on the page favors text and troubled by a minimum of distraction. And, for the love all that is scared, do not move the site search box far from the upper right corner because that is where the user will look for it if they take the time when not finding what they want where they are looking.
  • Surround the content with links to contextually related content and interaction elements that either help the user to accomplish their goal or move them closer to doing so.

Do you have any questions or suggestions? Feel free to share them in the comment section.

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Marianne Sweeny is VP of Internet Marketing for Strategic Edge Partners, a medical marketing agency. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s most recent article for SEMrush was entitled: "SEOs, Guns & Religion."
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Thank you for this article ! It is very interesting to see how mental models are more and more important. What tool do you use to get eye tracking data ?
Marianne Sweeny
Alice Roussel
Hello Alice

And my thanks to you for your kind words. Portent uses Crazy Egg software to collect click data for clients. There are many other high quality products to consider for this type of data collection. Eye-tracking data collection is somewhat more complex as it often involves real time user and usability studies. There is an excellent paper that explores many of the available methods: Eyetracking in Online Search; Laura Granka (Google), Matthew Feusner (UC San Francisco) and Lori Lorigo (Cornell) [http://static.googleuserconten...] that you might find useful.