Let me quote some rather startling numbers to you from a recent eye tracking study we did. In the study, we looked at where people first looked on a search results page, where they first scanned a listing, and where they eventually clicked.

First of all, we gave participants a number of different scenarios that involved looking to a search engine to help them make a purchase. We used Google, Yahoo and MSN in the study. In all cases, on all 3 engines, the vast majority of people first glanced at the top sponsored listings. In eye tracking parlance, we call this a fixation, or a momentary pause of the eye. On Yahoo, 84% of the first fixations were on the top sponsored when they appeared, on Google it was 81%, and on MSN it was 87%. So, almost 9 out of every 10 people start looking at the search results page by at least glancing at the top sponsored.

The next thing we measured was active scanning. This is where participant's started reading a listing. On Google and Yahoo, there was a strong correlation with the first fixation point, with 79% of the first reading activity on top sponsored for Yahoo, and 71% for Google. MSN was another story. While 87% of participants first glanced at the top sponsored ads, only 55% started reading there. Almost 32% of our participants immediately relocated past the sponsored ads.

Finally, we recorded where the eventual clicks happened. In Google's case, 26% of the clicks happened in the top sponsored ads, with Yahoo it was 30%, and MSN came in with 17% click through on top sponsored.

Here's what we took from the numbers. On Google, although over 80% of searchers started in the top sponsored, only 26% found something relevant and compelling enough to click on, and remember, these were commercial, product oriented searches. On Yahoo, 84% started in top sponsored, but in Yahoo's case, about 30% stuck around and clicked an ad. And with MSN, something entirely different was going on. It seems that MSN users have a bad case of banner blindness when it comes to top sponsored ads.

Scanning Follows Relevancy

The reason top sponsored ads are effective is because they're placed in the highest traffic portion of the page. We orient ourselves in the page on the upper left. Our destination is the top organic ad. Top sponsored ads are placed in the middle of the most popular real estate on the SERP. This is shown by the high percentage of fixations that happen in this section.

But our interactions with the SERP are not all about position. We can, very quickly, determine if what's there is relevant to what we're looking for. We quickly scan titles to see if the ads presented match our intent. And when I say quickly, I'm talking fractions of a second. We start picking up relevancy without even having to read the listings by determining scent. If the listing has “scent” and it's a good match, we'll not only hang around and start scanning the listing, we may even click on it. Otherwise, we do what we intended to do in the first place and skip down to the organic listings. That's what's happening on Google and Yahoo. MSN is another story.

The MSN Two-Step

During the study period, MSN was in experimentation mode. They were in the process of dropping Yahoo ads from the top listing and substituting their own advertising, which in most cases wasn't keyword driven to the same extent that the Yahoo ads were. This usually meant that the “scent” or relevancy match wasn't as great. When this happened, we saw almost immediate relocation down to organic results. Users could determine the existence, or in this case, absence of scent in a fraction of a second and relocated down. In effect, it was an example of banner blindness, where they were determining that the top sponsored results weren't relevant.

The lesson from this for the search engines is that you can't take position for granted. You have to deliver with relevancy and the greater the relevancy, or at least the perceived relevancy, the better those top sponsored ads will perform.

Yahoo's Relevancy Capitulation

Yahoo has learned this over time. In the beginning days of GoTo/Overture/Yahoo, position was determined solely by bidding. When Google came on the scene, they offered a blended approach, where click through rates also helped determine position. The theory was, the higher the click through rate, the greater the relevancy.

Yahoo has recently announced integrating click through rates and relevancy into the sponsored positioning algorithm as well. This is the beginning. Soon, message and landing page relevancy will also be factored into the position equation.

When it comes to capturing a searcher's click, you have to deliver relevancy. It's not all about position, and that will become more true in the future, not less.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

May 9, 2006

Gord Hotchkiss is President and CEO of Enquiro, Canada's leading search engine marketing firm and one of the top firms in North America. His articles are regularly published in both on and off line newsletters, including Marketing Monitor, SEOToday, Marketing and many other trade journals. Enquiro's own information portal is www.searchengineposition.com.

With an extensive 20 year background in the marketing and advertising business, Gord has been working to increase client's search engine visibility since 1996 and has specialized in search engine marketing since 1999.

Search Engine Guide > Gord Hotchkiss > Relevancy Rules in Sponsored Search Ads