In Search -- Even in Mobile -- Organic Still Matters

I told someone recently that I feel like Rick Astley. You know, the guy that had the monster hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” in 1987 and is still trading on it almost 30 years later? He even enjoyed a brief resurgence of viral fame in 2007 when the world discovered what it meant to be “Rickrolled.”

My “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the Golden Triangle eye-tracking study we released in 2005. It’s my one-hit wonder (to be fair to Astley, he did have a couple other hits, but you get the idea). And yes, I’m still talking about it.

The Golden Triangle, as we identified it, existed because people were drawn to look at the number-one organic listing.

That’s an important thing to keep in mind. In today’s world of ad blockers and teeth-gnashing about the future of advertising, there is probably no purer or more controllable environment than the search results page. Creativity is stripped to the bare minimum. Ads have to be highly relevant and non-promotional in nature.  Interaction is restricted to the few seconds required to scan and click. If there was anywhere ads might be tolerated, it's on the search results page.


If we fully trusted ads -- especially those as benign as those that show up on search results -- there would have been no Golden Triangle. It only existed because we needed to see that top organic result. Dragging our eyes down to it formed one side of the triangle.

Fast-forward almost 10 years. The current incarnation of my old company, Mediative, released a follow-up two years ago. While the Golden Triangle had definitely morphed into a more linear scan, the motivation remained: People wanted to scan down to see at least one organic listing. They didn’t trust ads then. They don’t trust ads now.

Google has used this need to anchor our scanning with the top organic listing to introduce a greater variety of results into the top “hot zone” -- where scanning is the greatest. Now, depending on the search, there is likely to be at least a full screen of various results --  including ads, local listings, reviews or news items -- before your eyes hit that top organic web result. Yet, we seem to be persistent in our need to see it. Most people still make the effort to scroll down, find it and assess its relevance.

It should be noted that all of the above refers to desktop search. But almost a year ago, Google announced that -- for the first time ever -- more searches happened on a mobile device than on a desktop.

Mediative just released a new eye-tracking study (Note: I was not involved at all with this one). This time, the company dove into scan patterns on mobile devices. Given the limited real estate and the fact that for many popular searches, you would have to consciously scroll down at least a couple times to see the first organic result, did users become more accepting of ads?

Nope. They just scanned further down!

The study’s first finding was that the #1 organic listing still captures the most click activity, but it takes users almost twice as long to find it compared to a desktop.

The study’s second finding was that even though organic is still important, position matters more than ever. Users will make the effort to find the top organic result. Once they do, they’ll generally scan the top four results -- but if they find nothing relevant, they probably won’t scan much further. In the study, 92.6% of the clicks happened above the fourth organic listing.  On a desktop, 84% of the clicks happened above the number 4 listing.

The third finding shows an interesting paradox that’s emerging on mobile devices: We’re carrying our search habits from the desktop over with us -- especially our need to see at least one organic listing.

The average time to scan the top sponsored listing was only .36 seconds, meaning that people checked it out immediately after orienting themselves to the mobile results page -- but for those that clicked the listing, the average time to click was 5.95 seconds. That’s almost 50% longer than the average time to click on a desktop search.

When organic results are pushed down the page because of other content, it’s taking us longer before we feel confident enough to make our choice. We still need to anchor our relevancy assessment with that top organic result, and that’s causing us to be less efficient in our mobile searches than we are on the desktop.

The study also indicated that these behaviors could be in flux. We may be adapting our search strategies for mobile devices, but we’re not quite there yet. I’ll pick things up there in next week’s column.

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