How Do People Use Search Engines

Dan Russell spoke at BayCHI Tuesday evening regarding how people use search engines. His talk was similar to one he gave to Stanford this March (video no longer available), but I did find a couple of things of note.

The March speech only had slides of individual eyetracking sessions, while Tuesday’s speech showed the traditional “golden triangle” heat map of people spending the most time looking at the top left of the screen — but that was only for the first time they viewed the screen. For subsequent visits to the same page, there was considerably less looking in this same area, the heat map was much more distributed among the results. He showed the second heat map, but did not give any more insight into this information.

With regards to individual eyetracking sessions, Russell mentioned how quickly people scanned, and that they often refined their query within 2-3 seconds of their initial result. He emphasized the importance of making sure your titles are written well so that your site won’t be overlooked in the 2-3 seconds before the user decides the results are not applicable. To view the individual eyetracking studies, see the link to Stanford’s HCI seminar above and go to about 42 minutes into the presentation.

Things I’ve wondered about regarding search and viewing SERPs that were not discussed: is tabbed browsing affecting search behavior? I will often open three or four likely results in new tabs before I even visit the first result. Has there ever been an experiment to set the default results at 20 instead of 10? Would that change behavior, or would so many results be below the fold that it would make no difference? I personally have my default set to 50 results, and sometimes still go to the second page.

As Russell also said to the audience, “You are a couple sigma away from the norm (and the fact that you understood that sentence proves my point) and so are your friends.” He also said “You are statistically insignificant” when you look at the vast number of people using Google. I do wonder how trends have changed with the advent of new browsers (especially with the tabbed browsing now in IE7 that is being forced upon the masses) and of bigger monitors with larger resolutions giving us a larger area “above the fold”.

In the Q&A session, Russell was asked if Google had any data about how people viewed the organic listings versus the sponsored listings on the top versus the sponsored listings on the right. As some in the audience got hopeful, he answered “Yeah, we have data on that. Next.”

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