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September 8, 2008

Do Search Engine Rankings Still Matter?

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Matt McGowan alerted me to an article over at GrokDotCom today that uses eyetracking data to argue that ranking first in Google is still important to your company’s bottom line. The article is worth a read for a couple of reasons – first, we get to debate the importance of rankings again (fun!), and second, it presents data that may be completely contradictory to what you always thought. At least it was for me.

First the back story: Over at The Grok, Brian Eisenberg offers up two eyetracking studies, one shows how users searched in 2005 and the other shows how they search today. The results, as you can imagine, are completely different.

According to the study, three years ago people actually scanned down the whole SERP; we see lots of red trails taking place all the way to the tenth results. Today, the red high activity bubble is located between the first and second result, with users not even paying much attention to the blended search result in the fourth spot (I think it’s in the forth spot. My old eyes aren’t too sure.). Everything below result number three doesn’t even exist to searchers.

I was pretty surprised by that, to be honest. I would think that with blended search and images and video appearing in the results that users would be more likely to interact with the whole SERP, not less. I would think that seeing an image appear in the fourth spot would drag a searcher’s eye over there and make them pay attention, but according to this study, it doesn’t. Is the novelty factor with new forms of content in the SERP over already? I was also really surprised to see that in 2008, the search bar isn’t getting any love, whereas in 2005, it was hopping with activity. If searchers are only looking at the first two results and aren’t hovering around the search box, where are they on the page? Are they really only clicking on the first two Google search results? I’d have a hard time swallowing that.

So what’s really going on with searchers? Are they searching smarter? Are they too impatient to take in the whole SERP? Or are factors like personalized search coming into play and giving users exactly what they want straight out of the gate? Or maybe Google just ultra-awesome at deciding what you want for you? After all, according to Marissa Mayer, Google has at least 90 percent of search figured out.

I think everyone’s getting smarter.

Searchers are getting smarter. They’re not wasting their time on bad searches. They’re doing a search for [moving information] and when they’re bombarded with irrelevant results, they’re not going page by page hoping they get better. Instead, they’re immediately refining their search. Maybe that’s why the search bar has no activity, because they’re not lingering. They’re there and then they’re not.

And the search engines are getting smarter. They’re using intent-based search to analyze the words you selected in your query to get your true motive. If you search for [moving information], they know you’re looking for information resources. If you search for [moving companies pricing], they know you’re further along the conversion path and are looking for services. I totally believe Google is taking this information into consideration today when they’re giving back results. And so is Yahoo.

Beyond intent-matching, behavioral search and personalized search are helping to align users’ wants, needs and past history to give them exactly what they want. And despite what the data actually proves, I think blended search plays a part in that, as well.

Which brings us to the question of whether or not rankings matter today.

They matter. They may be losing their importance as a prime SEO metric thanks to social media and advancements in the search engines, but they’re still important. Rankings are how users find your Web site. If you don’t rank, you don’t exist. And by looking at this new eyetracking data, it could be that if you don’t rank in the top three, you don’t exist.

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9 responses to “Do Search Engine Rankings Still Matter?”

  1. lokipro writes:

    I think that this report may be somewhat misleading… if I look at my own behavior, it’s true that I will only look at the first 3-4 results when search. If I see that my search hasn’t brought relevant searches to the top three, I start again with a new search… once my search has been interrupted by relevant results… I then begin to scan the page further.

    It all depends on the search results though! :)

  2. Craig Geis writes:

    I think that in reality the searchers are getting lazier. Searchers are not scanning results, but rather making assumptions that top results are on target. Google’s personalized search results are creating tunel vision for many searchers. I think the eye patterns prove that out.

  3. Lily writes:

    Guy, pleeease do not look at your own behavior! What is the percentage of the internet/search savvy people of the whole searches? Yes. Thank you.

  4. AProgrammingPro writes:

    I don’t believe that being #1 for one or two keywords is all you should be concerned with. Search phrasing is getting more complex, long tailing is more important.
    I do agree 100% that people don’t continue looking past the first page most of the time. They will just change the search parameters.
    Great Article.

  5. Harrison Watson writes:

    I am actually not the least bit surprised that people interact less with the search engines. Most people who use the internet aren’t aware of the changes that have occured in search, nor do they care, to them number one for the search term means that this site must have exactly what I’m looking for. Plus people are generally becoming smarter with their search terms as well. More targeted search leads to better results and often times. One and Two will be your best bets.

  6. Eduard Blacquière writes:

    Nice study, but I think Avinash has a very valid point in the comments there at when it comes to making conclusions without taking in account the methodology and the sample size.
    Besides that I think search engine listings have definitely lost their importance as a KPI for measuring the succes of SEO. I just wrote an article about that at Yoast.com "Measuring SEO: why rankings are worthless":
    http://yoast.com/measuring-seo-rankings/

  7. Final Eclipse writes:

    I think part of it depends on the user… it’s not realistic to look at everyone on the web as one large demographic and expect them to behave the same.

    As advanced internet users, we probably automatically behave differently than new or less experianced users do.

    I personally scan the first 5 or so results, and if nothing that I like appears, I refine my search.

  8. jwcorbett writes:

    Seems to me that SEO is only becoming more important as we are now dealing with ever more people who grew up with reasonably good search than those who did not. As for perceived laziness, I think that can largely be explained by a large gap in consumer understanding of SEM in general in an ever faster paced world.

  9. Jaamit writes:

    Great article, and I agree 100% that rankings do matter despite the variations from personalised search (which are quite small on the grand scale of things).

    Re the lack of heat on the google search bar – my theory is that people search from their in-browser search bar (which weren’t really around in 2005) and probably go back there to refine their search, thus bypassing the on-page search bar altogether. Could this explain it? Finally, I want to second Eduard’s comment in pointing out Avinash Kaushik’s comment in the article, which is spot on. No permalink but I’ve reproduced it below:

    Two things to be very cautious about (when looking at any piece of data):

    1] Methodology.
    2] Sample size.

    In this case, from the Think Eyetracking blog, the search term that was used was Oasis. If you were looking for the band the first few results are actually so strong that you would be silly to scroll any further.

    The search term influences where people look, what they do. The "map" for "digital cameras" might be very different (actually is very different).

    The sample size is 30. Hardly enough to make the kind of extrapolations that we are making in 37 prior comments about global customer behavior.

    So: (Methodology and Sample Size) + Relevance to you = Magic. : )

    -Avinash.

    PS: Let me hasten to add that I am not saying the first three results are not important, I am not arguing against the need for a robust SEM (SEO + PPC) strategy. I am simply trying to caution against jumping to conclusions without a proper internalization of what is behind the data.



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