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Lessons Learned from Eye Tracking Studies

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You've optimized your web pages to be search engine friendly, and they're ranking well in search result pages, but so what—if users don't actually do what you'd like them to do once they arrive at your web site.

A couple of weeks ago, in my article A New F-Word for Google Search Results, I wrote about a recent study that tracked user eye movements on Google search result pages. That study focused on how users perceived titles and snippets from organic results, as well as sponsored links.

The study found that users looked mostly at the top part of a search result page, with results lower down on the list getting little to no attention. These results were significant, because they reiterated the importance of organic search engine optimization to make sure that your web site has a fair chance of being found by Google users.

But what happens if you've created a great, search friendly page that shows up at the top of search results, and yet when people click through to that page they don't see your important marketing messages? Or their eyes are drawn to elements on the page that aren't central to the behavior you hope to elicit by attracting them to your web site in the first place?

And how would you even know?

Eyetools, the company that performed the eye tracking experiments for the Google study, offers some interesting additional research that can help you better understand how to design your own web pages for maximum impact after users have found your site via search engines.

Greg Edwards, a principal at Eyetools, pens a fascinating weblog called Eyetools Research where he describes the research and conclusions drawn from looking at a wide variety of web sites. Even if you don't do eye tracking studies yourself, the conclusions drawn from these studies can really help you understand how people read and behave on different types of web sites.

In one study, for example, Eyetools inserted gibberish into E*Trade's homepage to illustrate that content in a "visual dead zone" doesn't get read and might as well not exist. Some of the "gibberish" was astonishing—phrases like "FDIC distrusts us," "No Bank Quality," and "Will Lose Value"—statements that should have caused even semi-conscious users racing to abandon the page were noticed by only 1 in 25 people!

In another case, Eyetools analyzed a recent redesign of the Washington Post's home page. Eyetools concluded that the "above the fold" portion of the page was effective and well designed. But an eye tracking analysis suggested everything below the fold was virtually invisible, leading Edwards to conclude that the Post had wasted money on the design.

Greg's blog is relatively new, but his analyses and conclusions are fascinating, and should be a must-read for anyone interested in web site usability. Search marketers can also learn from these studies because they offer compelling evidence that there's more to search engine optimization than simply creating search friendly web sites that rank well on result pages.

To get a sense of how you can use eye tracking to design better web pages, Eyetools offers a PDF of a homepage redesign using Eyetools eye tracking (4 pages, 905 K, images of a site before/after, plus Eyetools heatmaps).

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Google's (And Search Marketing's) Golden Triangle discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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