The Evolution of SERPs and User Behaviors

As an industry, we talk a lot about Google (and search engines in general) getting smarter, and most of the time, that should be our focus. Our job is at the mercy of search engines and as they improve, we have to improve with them. And they improve a lot.

Since 2011, Google has updated its algorithm 83 times, and that’s only factoring in the major changes, not the countless smaller updates that go unnoticed or unreported. That’s 83 times in three years we’ve had to tweak our jobs in order to stay relevant. I don’t know many other industries that go through that much fluctuation.

Some, if not most, of these changes may be imperceptible to the average user — hint: SEOs are not Google’s average user — but we spend far less time thinking about how they are adapting their search behavior each time Google makes a change. They may not recognize it, but we sure should, because just as our job changes each time search engines change, our jobs need to change as user search behavior advances.

Last month, Mediative released a new eye tracking study showing the evolution of SERPs and how that’s affected how users scan results and ultimately decided on the listing the want. I highly recommend downloading the whole study, but here are the highlights:

SERPs in 2005

Or in other words, the year of the Golden Triangle.

serps-2005

In 2005, if you weren’t in the top three listings, you probably weren’t getting clicks. Users didn’t scroll. They trusted that whatever Google was showing them as first was the best possible option.

Users first gravitated to the top left corner of SERPs and scanned horizontally to read more about what was in that listing specifically. Long, descriptive title tags and meta descriptions were advantageous because people wanted to know as much as possible about what they’d find before they committed to clicking.

SERPs in 2014

Now, it looks more like “F.”

serps-2014

serps2-2014

Instead of scanning horizontally, users are moving further down the page to find what they’re looking for. Mediative suggested this was because mobile devices have trained uses to scan vertically rather than horizontally, which is valid, but more so I think people have just gotten to know Google over the past nine years.

The more they’ve used the search engine, the more they’ve realized that what shows up first may not exactly be what they’re looking for. Everyone has, at least once, clicked on the first listing only to realize it wasn’t right. Do that enough times, and you’ll naturally start exploring other options. Users are much more research-driven than they were in 2005, and they want to see all options as fast as possible — about 1.17 seconds viewing each listing, according to the study — before making a decision, which may or may not be that first listing.

This is great news for real estate. Sure, the number one listing will still get more clicks, but the percentage is getting more evenly distributed between spots two to four.

click-distribution

In 2005, users were served the same 10-listing format for practically every search they did. Now, we see more SERP styles, including Knowledge Graph, Carousel, and three- or seven-pack map listings, meaning users interact a little differently with each format. According to the study:

  • Users aren’t really paying attention to the Carousel and gravitate toward the organic listings.
  • Knowledge Graph can take away clicks, but only if the information in there is relevant to the users search.
  • We see a similar pattern in map listings as organic listings: Regardless of where they’re located (above or below organic listings) users spend more time on the first map listing.

TLDR: What’s It Mean for Us?

From this, three main areas stick out on what we need to do better based on how people are using SERPS.

Optimize meta for more than just keywords.

If you only have 1.17 seconds to convince a user to click your listing, make sure your title tags and meta descriptions are short, concise and straight to the point.

  • Action words at the beginning of your title tag
  • USP or CTA first and foremost in your meta description
  • If you don’t need all 55 or 155 characters, don’t use them

Make your listings more attractive.

Visual elements are more attractive than text. Use them to spruce up your listing to draw more eyeballs and more clicks, an estimated 15 percent to 50 percent more clicks according to BruceClay.com. This means things like:

  • People crave reviews. If you’ve got them, mark them up with Schema for star ratings in SERPS
  • Thumbnail images or videos
  • Can’t ignore Google+ because those results will still appear if they’re from the searchers’ friends

Don’t just rely on just one tactic.

I griped last month about how SEO and PPC need to work together and with these findings released, it’s even more evident. Users aren’t ignoring sponsored listings. If anything, they’re paying more attention to them as Google quietly makes them look more and more like organic listings.

PPC gets your brand seen, even if users don’t necessarily click on the ad. It’s all about owning as much real estate in the SERP as possible, for both branded and non-branded queries, and PPC is a key component in making that happen.

What else can we learn about users behavior on a SERP that we can integrate into our daily marketing tactics?

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