You’re likely doing all you can to design your web pages to have all the relevant SEO factors that seem to be required to rank well in your favorite search engines. (At least we hope you are!) But are you designing your pages to get an "F" when looked at by your site visitors? If not, you’re going against what search giants like Google and scores of other research companies are now learning about how humans look and interact with web pages (and print ads, and television commercials, and more!)
Well, to be precise, "eye-tracking" started over 100 years! From Raymond Dodge’s Photochronograph in 1871 to Edmond Huey’s Eye-Tracker in 1898, the science of tracking eye movements is really nothing new. Today, companies like Tobii are creating amazing technology to allow for researchers, both private and academic, to generate useful data on how humans view and even think about the things they see and read on a wide variety of media.
So what, you say? So, when you read an article on The Official Google Blog entitled, "Eye-tracking studies: more than meets the eye" you discover that the leading search engine company has been doing intensive research on how to best layout their SERP’s (Search Engine Results Page) for the most effective delivery of results.
But what is meant by "most effective"? Good question. In the research behind that Google post, they wanted to find out how to best incorporate thumbnail image data to help a searcher find the best answers for what they were searching on. As a result of numerous eye-tracking studies performed they discovered that thumbnails did not effectively change the scanning of a page and in fact, improved a page viewers ability to skip information that did not meet their needs and get to the info that did.
"It showed that we had managed to design a subtle user interface that gives people helpful information without getting in the way of their primary task: finding relevant information."
Yet again, you say "Great. But so what? I use (fill_in_your_favorite search_engine_here)"
Ah, don’t be impatient, friend. If Google has shown that information searchers scan and find relevant information using certain patterns, you can bet that most of the other engine SERPs behave similarly. But don’t miss the bigger point here. All of the SEO, SEM, and PPC, and everything that is happening in your organization to get you ranked higher will benefit you only if you are ending up on that first page of results. And the higher on that page the more likely you are to get visual attention and subsequent click action taking the searcher from the engine to your site.
Jakob Nielsen’s "F-shaped pattern for reading web pages" presents a compelling argument thoroughly supported by the Google eye-tracking studies (and numerous other companies research as well as can be learned here and here.)
As you can see in the image to the right, the "heat map" of how the visitor’s eye scans the page ends up resembling an "F". And while this is the Western way of reading (left to right, top to bottom) similar studies show results that can be followed for non-Western languages.
Okay, back to wanting to be as high on the SERP as possible. Clearly, if your page is one of the top 3 to 4 on the page, you’re much more likely to be seen and clicked on than if you make the first page and are the 10th listing on that page!
Clearly, the stakes are getting higher (or more accurately, we are now discovering just how high they have likely always been!)
If Google and other companies are learning and implementing research such as this into the design of their pages, be they results pages of searches on data, or simply displaying news or collections of images, is there any reason you wouldn’t want to re-think your page designs to take advantage of this science?
Scientific Web Design: 23 Actionable Lessons from Eye-Tracking Studies is a fantastic article that will give you more reasons to design from this perspective than you’ll know what to do with! Some of the items are a given (even though you may not think about them consciously, you do them, like the rest of us):
- Readers ignore banners (Uhm, yeah. Unfortunately 🙁 )
- Showing numbers as numerals; digits not words (I didn’t realize this one and will have to change my behaviour accordingly)
- Shorter paragraphs perform better than longer ones (can you say short attention span?)
- Lists hold reader attention longer (heh, which you’d know if you’ve read this far!)
- Navigation tools work better when placed at the top of the page (I’d always wondered on this, and now have some definitive data to support that view)
The circular logic presented here is that if you can get your pages ranking in the top results for your targeted keyword, you know you’ll get more traffic to your site. Now you know why that happens. And more importantly, you know how you can use that very "why" to convert those visits into your most desirable actions: click, buy, subscribe, perform.
So, the next time you’re asked what your SEO goals are, tell them
"To get an F, of course!"