Social Media Fights Eye-tracking Golden Triangle

Do business reviews on social media sites make a difference in the amount of traffic your site receives from the search engines? Thanks to a small but provocative eye-tracking study, we now know the answer to this question is yes, but possibly not in the way you think.

Matt McGee over at Search Engine Land reviewed an eye-tracking and clicking study conducted by Mediative, formerly known as Enquiro. The research firm used its Tobii eye tracking technology to study how people interact with Google Places listings. Since location-based marketing has developed a major following, Mediative wanted to answer some questions about it to help guide marketers in where they should put their effort.

Specifically, Mediative wanted to know where searchers look on the page, whether it makes a difference if a listing has reviews, and whether Google’s “Golden Triangle” still applies. If you’re not familiar with the Golden Triangle, Gord Hotchkiss covers it in full. The short version: the golden triangle is the pattern most searchers use when looking over search results. They start at the top left and look across to the top right…and as they go down the page, they reduce the distance their eyes travel to the right. This forms a triangle, or sometimes an F-shape, which shows up clearly in eye-tracking studies.

Mediative used only 12 individuals in this new eye-tracking study, but supplemented with online click-tracking of 90 other participants. Despite the low number of test subjects on the eye-tracking side, it’s worth looking at the study’s results – especially since the click-tracking end seems to reinforce the findings. For purposes of the study, Mediative instructed the participants to pretend they were traveling on a four-stop road trip across Canada, trying to find a place to get a tattoo in each city.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the “golden triangle” still existed – but with some important exceptions. As McGee observed, “it doesn’t necessarily apply when lower business listings have more content than top-ranked listings.” The researchers saw a hint of this from the very first test. The listings for the search for tattoo places in Hamilton, Ontario included a top listing with one review, but no image; a second listing with an image; and a fourth listing with a review with text snippets. While the fourth listing got fewer eye tracks and clicks than the first two, it got more of both than the third listing received. So this test showed the classic triangle, with an important variation.

It was the second stage of the test that really raised a few eyebrows, however. In a search of Google Places for tattoos in London, Ontario, the first two listings offered only contact information and a web URL, while the third listing included contact information, a web URL, a ratings indicator with three red stars, an indication that Google had eight reviews for the business, and a snippet from one of those reviews. Not only did the eye-tracking individuals pay more attention to the third listing, but it got more click activity than the second business listed – indeed, McGee notes that it received “a comparable amount of clicks as the top-ranked business.”

This pattern held for the third and fourth stages of the study. “The top-ranked business always garnered attention and clicks, but listings further down the page did well when they had additional social content like star ratings, reviews and text snippets,” McGee reported. Once again, it’s worth noting that only 12 individuals in the study were followed with eye-tracking technology, so any attempt at drawing conclusions must be done cautiously. Nevertheless, what can we conclude from this study?

First, it is still possible to make it to the top of Google Places without getting reviews. Likewise, a spate of reviews won’t guarantee you the top listing; doing all of your basic SEO correctly is still important. Second, that top spot still means something; in all cases, it still garnered the first looks and the most clicks. The golden triangle does still matter.

Even so, it’s pretty clear that social media is changing the rules a bit. If the top listings don’t have extra information, then a listing a little further down can attract attention if it includes that extra data: stars, reviews, text snippets from reviews, and so forth. So if you’re not at the top and your competitors haven’t invested in social media, you can still hope to get some traffic from the search results. But you need to give searchers a reason to pay attention to your listing.

This brings us to a sort of corollary that McGee quotes Mediative as making. Though, as noted, it’s hard to draw conclusions from such a small study sample, this just might set a fire under the seats of those who have been hesitant to invest in social media for their marketing efforts. It’s simply this: “If your website is listed in any position other than the top, and your listing does not include any social signals, it will be relatively ignored, especially if there are other listings that do have social signals.”

I’m not saying that you should start neglecting your basic, standard SEO efforts in favor of seeking reviews and other social media attention. But if you haven’t been engaging with social media yet, perhaps it’s time for you to start. If you’ve achieved a near-the-top position in the search results for Google Places, it could help you gain some clicks against other competitors who haven’t invested in social media marketing. And if you’re at the top, it could help you solidify that position by telling searchers that yes, you’ve earned that ranking and they don’t need to look any further.

One final note: in addition to the small size of the study, it’s worth keeping in mind that the researchers specifically focused on Google Places. So any conclusions drawn here may not hold for other Google products (like their main search). Still, it may be worth doing a few tests of your own. Good luck!

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