It’s All about the Eyeballs

Any SEO wants to attract visitors to their own or their clients’ websites. Even when you manage that, though, how can you be sure that your message is getting across? Eye tracking is one way to find out whether your message is being seen. Researchers have been using this scientific tool to uncover some interesting results, with real implications for business owners and SEOs.

In the relatively early days of the World Wide Web, when advertisers and business owners were just starting to get a handle on how to sell to all those users, you heard the word “eyeballs” used frequently. Those who built and advertised on websites spent a lot of time and effort attracting as many eyeballs to their sites as possible. They also worked hard to find ways to keep those eyeballs looking – this is when websites started being referred to as “sticky.” Never mind the images conjured up by using “sticky” and “eyeballs” in the same context; the point was to get people to see your message, and hopefully motivate them to do what you wanted them to do.

Today, the eyes still have it, but Web professionals think about them in much more sophisticated ways. You may have heard of this; it’s called eye tracking. Among other things, scientists have used the principles of eye tracking to develop interfaces that are controlled entirely by where a user moves his or her eyes. In this case, however, eye tracking is used simply to study where a user moves his or her eyes when reading something, such as a magazine or a Web page. While researchers have been studying the way people read websites almost since the very earliest days of the Web itself, some of the results, even today, have proved to be surprising.

Eye tracking is not obscure; a search on the term in Google brings back close to four million hits. Many companies offer eye tracking services. For a relatively nominal fee, the firm will do an eye tracking study of a client’s website, interpret the results, and make recommendations for a redesign, if necessary. Since an eye tracking study will tell you exactly where visitors are looking when they go to your website, it is one way to tell whether the items you want them to see – and presumably act on – are actually being seen. Equally important, it will tell you whether your Web page has any “dead zones” that are being ignored entirely. As one waggish observer of eye tracking commented, “If your content falls on a Web page and nobody sees it, does it really exist?” Greg Edwards, who blogs for the eye tracking company Eyetools, answers that question with one that is more to the point: “If your content falls on a Web page and nobody sees it, does it make a click?”

Some eye tracking studies have turned up very interesting results that have particular relevance for SEOs. For instance, early in March 2005, search marketing firms Enquiro and Did-it teamed up with eye tracking firm Eyetools (mentioned above) to do an eye tracking study of people using the Google search engine. Anyone who pays for sponsored listings in search engines to advertise websites will want to know what these companies discovered from the research.

Most people who use search engines focus on a “golden triangle” when they view the results. This triangle extends across the top natural search result, then slides back to the left of the page and goes down to about the third or fourth position on the page. This is the spot at the bottom of the screen before scrolling, sometimes referred to as just “above the fold,” in parlance borrowed from newspapers. The shape of the scan pattern is actually closer to an “F” than a triangle, given the actual eye movement.

More than half of the study’s participants viewed the first five natural search results. What about the sponsored ads? Well, as you might guess from the shape of the viewed area, the ads at the top of the page were viewed by everyone who participated in the study. The sponsored listings that appeared on the right side of the Web page, however, attracted far fewer eyeballs. The first listing was viewed by only half of the participants; by the time the fifth sponsored listing was reached, however, only ten percent of the study group actually looked at it.

Granted, this was not a huge study; there were only 50 participants. Thinking about it, though – it makes a certain amount of sense. I know it fits the way I use a search engine; all I want to do is get a good look at the top results, so I can move on and continue with whatever research made me consult the search engine in the first place. What does this information mean for SEOs?

It confirms a truism that wise SEOs have known for a long time: natural results are still the best ones for generating interest. This means that organic search engine optimization should absolutely be part of any advertising campaign that involves marketing in the search engines. According to the eye tracking study, people who use search engines still prefer organic listings over sponsored listings, except for sponsored listings that appear at the top of the page. While it might seem “easier” to capture eyeballs by buying sponsored listings in the search engines, that won’t pay off in the long run as much as doing the actual optimization for your website.

As I mentioned, many SEOs already know that, when using a search engine to try to pull in visitors to a website, it is better to shoot for an organically high search result rather than pay for sponsored listings. But what happens once the visitors arrive at your website? Will they see your messages? Will they be motivated to click? Will they look at the parts of your website on which you spent so much time and effort to get your point across? Or will they look at the “less important” parts of the page? And, perhaps most important of all, how would you even know?

Here again, Eyetools provides some interesting answers. Because Web pages are often set up so differently from each other, there seems to be no general rule. Looking at case studies can be instructive, however. For example, in his blog, Greg Edwards discusses a test his company ran on an E*Trade website back in early 2001 that illustrates a number of relevant points for SEOs and business owners concerned with what people see (and don’t see) on their websites. Eyetools discovered from the study that the website had “visual dead zones” that visitors did not read. To prove that content posted in those areas might as well not exist, the company then came up with “gibberish” to post in those dead areas.

Not all of it was just gibberish, however. Phrases used included “FDIC distrusts us,” “No Bank Quality,” and “Will Lose Value.” Remember, E*Trade is a financial website; these are the kinds of phrases that should therefore pull even a casual surfer up short. When Eyetools sent the modified page to a number of people and then asked them if there was anything “strange” about the page, only one person in 25 noticed!

This brings home more solidly the point that was made above: if you have content in a dead zone, it might as well not exist. That might not seem like a big deal at first glance, but it can run into a real loss of money from the loss of opportunities.

You may be wondering if there is some way to quantify this loss. How do you put into dollars and cents terms what is lost from the fact that visitors are not looking at some part of your content? That may very much depend on the content itself.

Consider the E*Trade example again. Imagine that, instead of gibberish in those dead zones, the company tried to run a promotion in that area. Say, for example, that it had started a new service or came out with a new product, and it put the “Click here to sign up!” or “Click here for more information” ad in one of those dead zones. What conclusions would be drawn if it did not see the click-through results it expected?

Well, perhaps the public relations people would consider the possibility that people aren’t seeing the ad; then again, they might come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with the offer itself. They might try to create a different offer, and/or do more (potentially very expensive) market research. At the very least, they might try to redesign the ad – all without realizing the role that the ad’s location is playing in its low click-through rate.

And speaking of redesigning…what about website redesign? If you have spent a large amount of time and money redesigning your website, how do you know that it was well spent and not wasted? Doing an eye tracking study before the redesign can help you to determine what parts of your site need work, and make sure that your time and money pay off in visitor clicks.

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