How Much of It is Real? Analysis of Paid Placement in Web Search Engine Results is a study now out that looks at what percentage of screen real estate is devoted to paid versus editorial content on search engines. On average, 60 percent of "first screen" results were paid, the figure dropping to 33 percent if the entire first page of results were reviewed.
Huh? The researchers looked at two different things. First, they assumed some searchers viewing results on an 800x600 screen resolution wouldn't scroll. Instead, they'd pick from only what they could see on the "first screen" of results.
In other parlance, this is often called the "above the fold" area, taking from newspaper jargon. Broadsheet newspapers are generally folded in half and often held that way by readers. This means stories shown "above the fold" get better play, better visibility to readers.
In the web world, the "fold" is content that you only see if you scroll. So while a first page of results at a search engine may show lots of information, only some of it is shown at one time.
How did individual search engines do? First the big qualification. The research, involving 384 queries, was done in Fall 2003. That's decades ago in search engine years. In that time, several of the services have had redesigns that would greatly impact the study, if it were repeated today.
But at that time, meta search engine Mamma was found to have the highest presentation of editorial results -- 83 percent for the first screen, 93 percent for the entire first page. Google followed, 82 percent and 88 percent, respectively. MSN followed at 47 percent and 73 percent, with Yahoo next at 40 percent and 86 percent. The report has a full breakdown of all search engines studied.
While the data is old, the main conclusion the study makes remains valid. Scroll! If you don't scroll through all the results, you may miss some of the editorial content you're looking for.
Even better, change your defaults. Every major search engine will let you view more than 10 results at a time. Change your options and see more.