How Search Users' Habits Have Evolved

Last week, I reviewed why the Golden Triangle existed in the first place. This week, we'll look at how the scanning patterns of Google users have evolved in the past nine years.

The reason I wanted to talk about information foraging last week is that it really sets the stage for understanding how patterns have changed with the present Google layout. In particular, one thing was true for Google in 2005 that is no longer true in 2014: Back then, all results sets looked pretty much the same.

Consistency and Conditioning

If humans do the same thing over and over again and usually achieve the same outcome, we stop thinking about what we're doing and we simply do it by habit. It's called conditioning. But habitual conditioning requires consistency.

In 2005, the Google results page was a remarkably consistent environment. There was always 10 blue organic links and usually there were up to three sponsored results at the top of the page. There may also have been a few sponsored results along the right side of the page.



Also, Google would put what it determined to be the most relevant results, both sponsored and organic, at the top of the page. This meant that for any given search, no matter the user intent, the top four results should presumably include the most relevant one -- or two organic results and a few hopefully relevant sponsored options for the user. If Google did its job well, there should be no reason to go beyond these four top results, at least in terms of a first click. And our original study showed that Google generally did do a pretty good job; over 80% of first clicks came from the top four results.

In 2014, however, we have a much different story. The 2005 Google was a one-size-fits-all solution. All results were links to a website. Now, not only do we have a variety of results, but even the results page layout varies from search to search. Google has become better at anticipating user intent and dynamically changes the layout on each search to be a better match for intent.

google 2014 big

What this means, however, is that we need to think a little more whenever we interact with a search page. Because the Google results page is no longer the same for every single search we do, we have exchanged consistency for relevance. This means that conditioning isn't as important a factor as it was in 2005. Now, we must adopt a two-stage foraging strategy.

This is shown in the heat map above. Our first foraging step is to determine what categories - or "chunks" of results - Google has decided to show on this particular results page. This is done with a vertical scan down the left side of the results set. In this scan, we're looking for cues on what each chunk offers -- typically in category headings or other quickly scanned labels. This first step is to determine which chunks are most promising in terms of information "scent." Then, in the second step, we go back to the most relevant chunks and start scanning in a more deliberate fashions. Here, scanning behaviors revert to the "F"-shaped scan we saw in 2005, creating a series of smaller "Golden Triangles."

This is interesting because, although Google's "chunking" of the results page forces us to scan in two separate steps, it's actually more efficient for us. The time spent scanning each result is half of what it was in 2005: 1.2 seconds vs. 2.5 seconds. Once we find the right "chunk" of results, the results shown tend to be more relevant, increasing our confidence in choosing them.  You'll see that the "mini" Golden Triangles have less lateral scanning than the original. We're picking up enough scent on the left side of each result to push our "click confidence" over the required threshold.

A Richer Visual Environment

Google also offers a much more visually appealing results page than it did nine years ago. Then, the entire results set was text-based. There were no images shown. Now, depending on the search, the page can include several images, as the example below (a search for "New Orleans art galleries") shows.


The presence of images has a dramatic impact on our foraging strategies. First of all, images can be parsed much quicker than text. We can determine the content of an image in fractions of a second, while text requires a much slower and deliberate type of mental processing. This means that our eyes are naturally drawn to images.

You'll notice that the above heat map has a light green haze over all the images shown. This is typical of the quick scan we do immediately upon page entry to determine what the images are about. Heat in an eye-tracking heat map is produced by duration of foveal focus. This can be misleading when we're dealing with images for two reasons. First, the fovea centralis is, predictably, in the center of our eye where our focus is the sharpest. We use it extensively when reading, but it's not as important when we're glancing at an image. We can make a coarse judgement about what a picture is without focusing on it. We don't need our fovea to know it's a picture of a building, or a person, or a map. It's only when we need to determine the details of a picture that we'll recruit the fine-grained resolution of our fovea.

Our ability to quickly parse images makes it likely that they will play an important role in our initial orientation scan of the results page. We'll quickly scan the available images looking for information "scent." It the image does offer scent, it will also act as a natural entry point for further scanning. Typically, when we see a relevant image, we look in the immediate vicinity to find more reinforcing scent. We often see scanning hot spots on titles or other text adjacent to relevant images.

We Cover More Territory - But We're Also More Efficient

So, to sum up, it appears that with our new two-step foraging strategy, we're covering more of the page, at least on our first scan, but Google is offering richer information scent, allowing us to zero in on the most promising "chunks" of information on the page. Once we find them, we are quicker to click on a promising result.

Next week, I'll look at the implications of this new behavior on organic optimization strategies.

1 comment about "How Search Users' Habits Have Evolved".
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  1. Augustine Fou from FouAnalytics, October 9, 2014 at 5:41 p.m.

    Users are very savvy now and even their eyes linger only on the things they think are important.

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