A new study released this year by a team of researches at Cornell University aims to examine the actions of searchers when it comes to both viewing search results and deciding which result to select. The team examined the results for actual search results and manually edited search results to see if users are influenced solely by ranking position, or also by perceived relevancy.

The studies findings were not unexpected, though they do back up anecdotal experience for most marketers. While viewing stayed fairly strong for the top five organic search listings, click-thru rates dropped off dramatically beyond the first result. More than two-third of searchers take the time to view the first two search results and more than a third view spots two to five. That number drops to less than ten percent when you get down to the listings in positions nine and ten.

When it comes to actual click-thru rates, the findings are a bit more scattered. On average, just four in ten searchers click the first listing in a search result. For positions two to six, the results have far less variation. Position two tended to receive about 16% of clicks, position three received about 10% and positions four, five and six all received around 5% or 6% of clicks.

The study suggests that once you move beyond the first few listings, searchers are serious enough that they'll take the time to view multiple results. In other words, unless you hold the first or second ranking, your position in the top ten may not matter near as much as you thought it did. In fact, it has been the experience of many marketers that their conversion rates tend to increase as their rankings decrease.

The thinking behind this is that the type of user that is determined enough to sort through five or six listings before landing on position seven, is a highly qualified searcher, and therefore, more likely to convert. While these lower positions mean less traffic, the higher conversion rates that can go with them often mean that the same amount of sales are still made. This furthers the shift in thinking from focusing on rankings to focusing on sales as a measurement of search engine marketing success.

The study also examines what it calls "trust bias" and "quality bias" and the impact that they have on how searchers decide which results to click on. Trust bias is used to explain the fact that so many users will select the first search result, no matter what listing actually shows up there. The research team manually switched the first and second results for many of the searchers and the majority of the time, the searchers selected the first result no matter which site was displayed. This implies that searchers are either a bit on the lazy side, or more likely, that they have an implicit trust that a search engine is going to deliver the most relevant result in the first listing.

Quality bias was used to describe the slight change that does come about when search results are mixed up by researchers. While the click-thru rates stayed high for the first listing, (42% on original results, 34% for "switched" results) the difference in click-thru rates for the adjusted search results was high enough to make researchers agree that the text of a listing does play an important role in deciding what listing a user will click on. So, while trust bias remains a strong influencer of where people click, it doesn't completely override quality bias.

So what does this mean to your search marketing campaign? For starters, it does confirm the significant increase in traffic that can come with a number one or number two ranking in the search results. That said, it also shows how important the perceived relevancy of your ad is toward encouraging click-throughs. Basically, you need to come up with a title tag and an encouraged description snippet that is more compelling than the listings on either side of you.

It's also encouraging for the sites that round out the top ten, but that are having a hard time breaking into those first two positions. Chances are that you don't need to worry if your site is ranking seventh instead of sixth. You're likely going to receive close to the same amount of traffic in either position, yet your conversion rates are probably going to be a bit stronger with the lower position.

The full study, in all it's complicated academic glory is available in PDF at the Cornell site. "Accurately Interpreting Clickthrough Data as Implicit Feedback."

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September 28, 2005





Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.







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