Search: Top 5 Is The New Top 10

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Microsoft released the results of an eye-tracking study focusing on the impact of search ranking, and more provocatively among industry experts, the impact of informational snippet length on user task performance. The early (and already debated) conclusion is that 1. a top 5 rank, not top 10, is crucial; 2. snippet length has a direct impact on search success.

Search: Top 5 Is The New Top 10
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But snippet lengths produced different results depending on the task, according to the 13-page report (PDF):

We found that as we increased the length of the query-dependent contextual snippet in search results, performance improved for informational queries, while it degraded for navigational queries.

In plain English, longer snippets significantly improved the searcher’s ability to find what they were looking for with informational tasks (i.e., average June temperature in Caracas). But when navigating for specific sites, longer snippets cluttered up the way.

Our eye tracking results suggest this difference in performance was due to the fact that as the snippet length increased, users paid more attention to the snippet and less attention to the URL located at the bottom of the search result.

Other findings:

1. Users scan four results regardless of where the best listing is (Though we also know from previous studies that the top listings are inherently trusted more, and it appears searchers consider results in couplets – one and two together, eliminating one, usually the second, and then skipping to three and four, suggesting odd-number results are superior to even-numbered results).

2. Users scanned more results when the best listing was moved further down the page, regardless of snippet length, indicating users know at a glance if the result is the correct one.

3. Users look farther down the list for navigational queries than for informational queries.

4. Users expect to find their desired information in the top five results (Other reports have supported that results appearing above the fold, or where scrolling is required, are clicked on with more frequency. In relation to that, Microsoft’s study showed click accuracy rates diminished for rankings 4, 5, 7, and 8. Note: Result six is not included as below the fold, six becomes rank one.)

5. Users examine, on average, eight results before changing their queries, meaning results 9 and 10 are pretty much SOL.

Over at SearchEngineLand, Danny Sullivan’s new magical search stomping ground, Sullivan makes his own conclusion:

Among the findings is that search marketers may need to be more concerned about getting into the top five rather than the top ten, if they want to be seen. In addition, search engines might want to seriously experiment more with adding “official site” links at the top of their pages and possibly enlarge the size of listing descriptions or “snippets” to help searches find what they are looking for.

Sullivan also echoed Microsoft researchers suggestion that, for navigational searches, URLs should be placed above the descriptions.

The question of the snippet, though, remains somewhat controversial. The authors of the study readily admitted that with longer snippets, fewer results are shown on a page. Plus, search engines would need to improve dramatically at distinguishing between an informational and a navigational query to better serve the intent of the searcher.

This is where Enquiro’s Gord Hotchkiss weighs in, cautioning about making dramatic changes based on one set of results:

When looking at eye tracking results, it’s vital to remember that there is no typical activity. Please don’t take an average and apply it as a rule of thumb.

Drawing conclusions such as snippet lengths should be longer or that official site tags should become standard are dangerous, because it’s not true for every search. The study actually found that ideal snippet length is highly dependent on the task and intent of the user.

It may be smart to suggest a sort of compromise, rather than either/or dichotomies. In a world of AJAX, it would seem relatively simple to settle the snippet debate with a more information mouse over. Or, dare I suggest, that Ask.com is ahead of the game here by offering website previews in the results.


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  • http://www.propdata.co.za Robert

    I’ve always found that positions 3 and 4 have better conversion rates as most searches tend to scroll past the ads at the top. In doing so they miss the first 2.

    Being in South Africa where bandwidth has been a bone of contention for so long, Google with it’s simple minimalist search has been king for so long. But I am desperately waiting for ASK 3D as I believe the results will be well worth the wait.

  • ricky morse

    how do you find out what prospects benefit the most from a top fold listing on google?

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