Don’t despair if you aren’t in top position on a search engine results page (SERP)

In the past, we were told our Google results page would need to show our site at the top to be effective. These days, we are better off: As long as we appear within the first 5 results, we have around a 10–20% chance of getting a click and a 40–80% chance of getting a look. In a detailed summary of today’s typical search engine results page (SERP), which is mostly about Google results, the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) explain what their latest research has found about today’s typical user experience.

These better chances are good news, but we still need to appear on the first page of results. People still aren’t likely to click through to the second page. In the NN/g analysis, users clicked past the first page of results in only 2% of queries.

Search engine results pages (SERP) have become more complex over time. In previous years, web users would focus on SERP results at the top of the web page and would move down the list of simple items in order. These days, the attention of web users is spread over various features in the page, bouncing around between various visual elements and keywords according to what catches their eye. NN/g calls this a pinball pattern. When search results pages contain complex and visually attractive elements, users are more likely to be drawn to those elements and distribute their attention across the SERP.

Below left: A results page for George Brett from 2009; below right: A results page for the same query in 2019, containing a range of content types, features, and presentations.

Image: NN/g.

Google results pages contain 3 types of content

  1. Results
  2. Advertisements (‘sponsored’)
  3. SERP features

A SERP feature is any element on the page that provides unpaid, organic content in a format other than a traditional result, as shown in the chart below. Common SERP features include:

  • Featured snippet
  • People Also Ask
  • Top Stories
  • Packs: image, video, and local
  • Carousel

The image below shows the way a typical user’s eye movements have been tracked looking unpredictably in a ‘pinball pattern’ around the elements on a page.

Image: NN/g.

Your results don’t always have to be first on the Google results page

Failing to occupy first position on a results page is not the problem it used to be. According to NN/g, the first result on results pages used to receive 51% of clicks, but now the first position on a SERP receives only 28% of clicks. In eyetracking research in 2010, NN/g found around 59% of clicks went to the first 3 positions. And in more recent research, they found even the 6th position received looks in 36% of cases.

The chart below shows the changed average distribution of clicks on a SERP as recorded by NN/g between 2006 and 2016-18. A direct comparison isn’t possible because the 2006 results showed only simple text links (because other page features didn’t exist at that time) while the 2016-18 figures could include ads or SERP features as well as text links.

A glance from a user may sound unimportant, but it has the potential to be quite valuable. In the NN/g research, they often observe users who discover previously unknown sites during search. Even if users don’t click on a link to your site the first time they see it, simply seeing your site name provides awareness and increases familiarity, thus bolstering your chances for next time.

The SERP below shows the way a user has glanced unpredictably around the page.

The varied layout in SERP adds complexity to the user experience, but users still choose a search result fairly quickly, spending an average of 5-6 seconds considering results before they make their first selection.

These days the type of task can affect the distribution of clicks. For simple, fact-finding tasks (eg, What’s the tallest building in the world?), people rely heavily on the first few results on the page and are less likely to consider results further down. For complex, research-based tasks (eg, How much weight of grass seeds do I need to plant to cover my backyard?), people are willing to dig through and consider lower results down the page.

The takeaway

It is worth spending time absorbing the implications of the pinball pattern search on user buying trends. You can read more detailed information in the NN/g article, “Complex Search-Results Pages Change Search Behavior: The Pinball Pattern.

Top image: SEO basics: Elements of the Google Search Engine Results Page.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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