When Ask recently unveiled its newly updated site it surprised us with some exciting new features and brought attention to some of its older ones. One of these being a site preview tool in the form of a small set of binoculars that was introduced in June 2004.
When a user enters a search, they are not just presented with the age old "ten blue links"; they are also given a small binocular icon under the search results that when scrolled over presents a screenshot of the given site.
This enables the user to not only view the site's information but also preview the site directly from the SERPs. This certainly differs from the way search results are currently set up where a user has to choose a site based solely on the text presented. With this, the user can take a look at the information, place it side by side with the appearance of the site, and then form a decision as to whether or not the site is relevant to their search.
This idea of a site preview within the SERPs is a fairly new idea and it could affect search, search marketing and more importantly click through rates.
With the current set up of search results, high rankings typically result in click throughs. If you are ranked #2 you are likely going to receive more clicks then #6, it is the basic premise behind search engine optimization.
But what happens to click through rates when users can preview the site before they click? What if #6 is better designed and much more user friendly then #2? Will the click through rates of each of these sites be affected? I decided to take a look.
Ask Gives Us Data
How many times have you searched for something only to click into the page to find a junky looking site? You then return to the search results and try again. Why do we do this? Well, mainly because there isn't a better way right?
Wrong. Ask thinks the binoculars are the better way. In a press release put out by Ask, Senior-Vice President of Search Properties, Jim Lanzone said, "The Binoculars feature allows users to say good-bye to pogo-sticking; that time-consuming process of repeatedly returning to the results page."(1)
To back this up, Ask hired Veri Test, a service of Lionbridge(2) to perform a study on the tool. In the independent study, the binoculars reduced the number of clicks required to find relevant search results by 50-70% per search(3). That means over half of the search results weren't even clicked on! Imagine how much time that saves users. But why did the site preview tool have such a drastic affect on the Veri Test participants' clicks?
The Idea of Visual Relevance
During the third draft of this article Garrett French, MarketSmart Interactive's Marketing Communication Manager, came up with the concept of visual relevance, which helped both of us better understand what my data showed.
When looking at standard search results we base our decisions strictly on the text presented. Does it provide me with the information I am looking for? Are my questions being answered and is the information relevant to my search?
We make the same sort of decisions when we click into the site, only this time we base our determination of relevance more on site appearance. Does this site appeal to me visually? If it doesn't, we simply hit the back button and return to our "pogo-sticking".
But what exactly makes users leave a site? What are they looking for and how does this idea of visual relevance play into Ask's site preview tool?
User Study on Site Previews
In order to gain a better understanding of site previews, visual relevance and the effect on click throughs, I decided to conduct a small survey.
I took 50 people from two different demographics: 25 people from the technology industry and 25 people from other industries including finance, education and healthcare. Each was given a set of ten search results from Ask using the term "discount clothing".
The users were asked to choose the two most appealing and the two least appealing sites based only on the binoculars screenshot. They were then asked to describe why they liked or disliked the sites.
The most appealing site was www.blue-fly.com which was liked by 74% of the group and disliked by no one. It ranked 8th. The least appealing site was www.baseline-clothing.com which was disliked by 54% of the group and liked by only one participant. It ranked 7th.
What were some of the reasons the participants found www.blue-fly.com so appealing?
As for why users disliked www.baseline-clothing.com:
Survey Says…Site Preview
After analyzing the results of the survey, I was able to come up with a few conclusions:
First, users are generally looking for the same thing when it comes to site appearance. Participants responded positively to clean images, neat layouts, easy navigation, a clear message and the feeling that they could trust the site. On the other side of that, they didn't want to be tied up with cheap images, ads and long blocks of text, especially on a site that sells clothing. The look and feel of the site had to be relevant to what they were searching for.
Second, the ability to preview a site will indeed have an effect on click through rates. When asked if they found the tool helpful, users responded with comments such as "I feel like this tool allows me to filter out some of the poorly designed websites and sites that might not have exactly what I am looking for" and "(I) Did find the tool useful because there were a few sites I would not buy from and the tool would help save some time". Users have to feel as if they are getting exactly what they are searching for and with the site preview tool, this means both visually and information wise. If they don't, then they simply won't click on it.
Now, I know that 50 people do not account for the millions of users on the Internet. This is a small survey with a small data set and these conclusions are not necessary for making major business decisions.
However, I would venture to say that the trends found in this study would almost certainly carry over to a much larger data set. The reason being the message found was nothing new. Usability best practices have been preaching these issues for years – clean site, clear message and positive user-experience.
The only difference is the site has to convey that message in the SERPs too.
Site Preview and Search Marketing – Come on Google!
With the results in, the question has to be ‘What does the Ask site preview tool really mean for search?' Will it actually have an effect on click throughs and will search marketers be forced to include usability and design in their skill set?
If the small amount of data I collected held true to the millions of users out there and they all searched on Ask.com, then yes, click through rates will be affected and search marketers will have to think about site appearance. Visual relevance will play a large role in user decisions and in turn, poorly designed sites will lose traffic while better-designed sites will gain traffic.
Will this actually be the case – no probably not. Unless Google and Yahoo develop similar tools, I don't expect much to change. Users will continue to click into sites based solely on rankings and information. As one user in my study put it, "(With the tool) I could quickly decide which sites to visit, but in reality, I can do the same thing by just clicking the organic link and quickly clicking "back" if not interested".
To end, while I don't see any immediate change, I do think the time is fast approaching where website owners and search marketers will have to think not only about rankings, but also about site appearance and this idea of visual relevance.
I don't say this because of my study or the fact I hate being wrong, but mainly because Ask isn't the first search engine to come up with this site preview idea and probably won't be the last.
Google toyed with the idea back in '04 and Snap.com recently revealed their new SERPs which feature half page screen shots of each result. Half a page dedicated to site appearance and the user doesn't even have to click on anything.
If the trend continues to move in this direction, I think we'll see Google and the bigger engines putting out similar features. What effect it will really have on search isn't certain, but it will definitely present us with a new perspective on search marketing.
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
Casie Gillette works in MarketSmart Interactive's tech analysis group where she increases site conversions for clients based on her knowledge of usability and her analysis of client site data. If you'd like to increase conversions with her search marketing and usability skills please contact MarketSmart Interactive at 877-420-6255 or email Casie at Casie.Gillette@MarketSmartInteractive.com.
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