In early March the eye-tracking firm Eyetools announced that it had “uncovered” search’s Golden Triangle. The triangle depicted the results of a study on where searchers’ eyes go on a Google results page, and it was not at all a surprise. At least the triangle wasn’t. More interesting to me was a dot, but first we’ll review the triangle.

Eyetools, along with search marketing companies Enquiro and Did-it, gave 50 people a task to do using Google and then tracked their eyes as they took in the results. The study showed that, among the organic listings taking up the left half of the screen, the first three were seen by 100 percent of the people, the fourth by 85 percent, the fifth by 60 percent, the sixth and seventh by 50 percent, the eighth and ninth by 30 percent and the tenth by 20 percent.

Hence the idea of the triangle, registering 100 percent of the eyes across the top of the organic listings from left to right and then declining gradually to 20 percent.

Much was written in the search marketing press about that triangle. But there were no surprises in it. It was a predictable result. Over to the right of the triangle’s top, though, a little dot had a lot to say about pay-per-click (PPC). What I call the tarnished dot showed eye activity for the paid listings, which, for Google’s AdWords, are usually along the right-hand side of the page. Only 50 percent of the eyes landed on the first ad, 40 percent on the second, 30 percent on the third and 20 percent on the fourth. The fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth ads were each seen by 10 percent of the study participants.

Google does sometimes put paid ads above the organic listings, but that prized spot is reserved for ads with the highest rank, which, according to Google, “is determined by various performance factors including: maximum cost-per-click (CPC), clickthrough rate (CTR), and ad text.” In other words, most of us can forget about it. And even those who think they have a shot at it can’t be sure.

So with that understanding, the eye-tracking study suggests two things about PPC strategy.

The first suggestion, if you’re using Google AdWords, is that you really want to be Number One, as opposed to a traditional PPC strategy of bidding so that you’re number Two or Three.

The reasoning behind aiming for the second or third spot, in addition to avoiding a bidding war, has been this: Surfers might click on the first ad out of curiosity even if they have no real interest in buying the product or service advertised, but clicking on the second or third ad indicates a higher level of commitment. That’s still probably true, and the strategy remains a valid one for PPC programs that put your ad above the organic listings. But for Google, with those ads generally over on the right in that tarnished dot, the first one gets only 50 percent of the eye traffic, and then the percentages decline rapidly.

So if you’ve been following the don’t-aim-for-the-top strategy, you might want to reexamine it for Google AdWords in light of the findings of the eye-tracking study. Unless you’re among the select few getting placed above the organic search results, only half of the people are likely to see your ad if it’s the top one, and you lose a big chunk of the eye traffic as you go to second and third place.

The second thing the study suggests to me is that for most of us there are better buys than Google AdWords.

I recently set up a PPC program for a new client and compared Google AdWords with Overture Precision Match. We’d have to bid almost twice as much for the keyword phrases on Google, and then the listings would be in that not-so-golden dot to the right of the organic listings. On Overture (soon to be renamed Yahoo! Search Marketing Solutions), for less money, my client would be above the organic listings on MSN Search, Yahoo Search, All the Web and AltaVista as well as Overture.

MSN and Yahoo, between them, get 48 percent of all the searches done by U.S. searchers, according to So Overture gets my client a likely 100 percent of the eye traffic for what probably amounts to half of the people in the U.S. who are going to search on our keyword phrases. And, as a bonus, we don’t have to chase the top listing. In the Google study, the top three organic listings all got 100 percent of the eye traffic. It’s a fair assumption that the top three paid listings will also get 100 percent or close to 100 percent if they’re above the other listings on the left half of the screen.

Of course, nothing stays constant in this industry. It remains to be seen how the relationships will change after MSN, as announced, develops its own PPC program. But at the moment it seems to me that Overture is the best buy in PPC unless you can count on Google placing you at the top of that Golden Triangle. And very few of us can count on that.

View the Eyetools report.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
April 4, 2005

Mel Harkrader Pine, ABC, is founder and President of MHP Communications LLC, which combines public relations and internet consulting. Before the Internet Revolution, Mel wrote and edited for newspapers in Philadelphia and New York City, served as an Adjunct Professor of Journalism at New York University, and held executive positions in corporate public relations.

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