An Irish firm called Mulley Communications recently used eye-tracking software to follow people’s eye movements on a page of Google search results. The firm found that people look at the first three results, but generally ignore the ads on the right-hand side of the page. They do, however, look at the one or two “sponsored links” that appear above certain sets of search results. The company released six videos — or “eye heat maps” — showing which spots on the page drew the most attention.
Why are people concentrating so closely on the upper-left hand side of the page? Is this some kind of a default position for screens? Maybe, although the possibility seems slight. (Check out this tennis match. Or this spanish ad for a home retailer. Or this eye heat map of the Ikea web site.) An alternative possibility is that the eye heat map for Google says more about Google than it does about web sites or computer screens.
Mulley posted eye heat map videos for six online searches. What is different about each search is the degree of specificity. The searches range from the very specific (“Liverpool football” and “MAC cosmetics UK”) to the very general (“Jobs Ireland” and “News Ireland”). A reasonable hypothesis is that more general searches would lead to more eye dispersion as users visually scroll down the page looking for results that match their interests. Meanwhile, more specific searches would lead to concentrated eye movements at the top of the page, since the search engine is likely to produce a match for the site users had in mind. This is clearly not what happens, though. In every search, general or specific, people focus on the top three or four results. Why?
People could be lazy — really, really lazy not to move their eyes down a page. Another possibility is that Google’s algorithm so accurately matches what people are looking for when they have something specific in mind that when they pose a general search, they trust that Google’s super smart algorithm will find the best site for them to visit. This trust needn’t be conscious. It can be completely automatic, an instinct based on the ability of past search results (specific and general) to give people what they are looking for. Ironically then, Google’s ability to deliver the information individuals want is so effective that it ends up hurting many of the companies that pay Google to reach those same individuals. Those companies can appear on the page that interests a potential customer, and yet still be ignored. Missing in plain sight.
Hat tip: Simoleon Sense and Liam Delaney for first spotting these maps.