The Pinball Pattern of Scanning Search Results Pages

Search engine results pages used to be pretty simple, just a collection of text results and a list maybe with a few ads. So in the old days of Web search, users would reliably focus their attention on the first few results at the top of the page and would sequentially move down from result to result down the list.

Today, results pages are much more complex. Major search engines like Google and Bing often feature interactive elements, images and video thumbnails. Those continuously evolving results pages are shaping how people search. Each new feature affects the distribution of users attention on the page. Well, a few things are still the same. Users still rarely go beyond that first page of results, and the results that are at the top of the page still do get the most attention. And users still do linearly process results pages in some cases. However, today we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process the results more non-linear early than before. In fact, we observed so much bouncing between various elements across SERP pages that we can define a new gaze pattern, the pinball pattern in a pinball pattern. The user scans the results page in a highly nonlinear path, bouncing around between results and features, much like a ball in a pinball machine game. So what does this new gaze pattern mean for digital product teams and content creators? In the old days, advice for search engine optimization used to be, in the words of Ricky Bobby, if you’re not first, you’re last. And that’s because at that time you weren’t likely to get many people clicking on your link unless you were at the top of that list. But times have changed.

We found a wider distribution of both clicks and looks further down the results pages. So if your site isn’t ranking in the first position, that’s not ideal. But as long as you’re appearing near the top within the first five results, you may have around a 10 to 20 percent chance of getting a click and anywhere from a 40 to 80 percent chance of getting a look.

Virtual Tours

How do you translate the experience of being in a specific physical space and what that feels like for people who can’t be there? Quarantines have made this question suddenly much more important for industries like real estate events, spaces, universities and cultural institutions. So we did some years of research to find out what works well about them currently and what could still use some work. We learned a few big things with virtual tours. Users thought of virtual tours as a secondary tool after photos and videos. Especially when the task involved gathering information for big consequential decisions like buying a home, booking a wedding venue or choosing a university, people consistently looked at photo galleries and even prerecorded video tours before using the 3-D virtual tours. This is because they expected the virtual tours to take a lot of effort to use. And they turned out to be right. Users would quickly flip through a series of photos to decide if something was interesting enough to invest the time and effort to take that full virtual tour. Virtual tours take a lot of effort to control and moving through the virtual space is slow. These tours, they’re not really full 3D worlds, they’re truly just a series of 360 degree photos linked together. This means that users can’t freely move through the space at the speed they want and stop and look around. They also load really slowly. For example, one mobile user walked into a room during a house tour and got frustrated trying to turn around, go back into the hallway. He said for me to turn around and get out of the room, that was like eight thumbs worth spatial orientation was also a big struggle.

Users weren’t always sure exactly which room they currently were in and what other rooms were nearby. Text labels on the arrow links between rooms help somewhat but quickly cluttered the view and navigating to other parts of a space that were not adjacent was also really difficult. There were some other experiments with filmstrip thumbnails or a dollhouse view where you could teleport, but these were difficult to control and users often overlooked them anyway. This is pretty similar to the crude 3D video games of the 90s. In fact, several people compared these virtual tours to the video game missed from 1993. Video games have progressed dramatically since then, but virtual tours are still stuck in the past. Users wanted a guided expert walk through to get them excited about the space rather than having to fend for themselves.

They wanted someone to tell them what they were looking at and why it mattered. An expert guide like a realtor, a museum docent or a park ranger could offer up useful information at the right moment. Often things that users wouldn’t even know to ask. Imagine when touring a virtual home, you could see information at a glance about the size of the room, which direction and window is facing. So you know what the light is like throughout the day. How many power outlets are in there and things like that, or in a museum you could have contextual information about the brush strokes and the technique and also the life of the artist. This is not easy to do. Well, you need to understand specifically what information users want and when it’s appropriate to reveal it.

But if it’s executed well, there’s a huge opportunity for these virtual tours to go beyond an in-person visit and be better than reality.

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