Do Search Engine Rankings Still Matter?
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.