Study: Top Ranking Most Clicked, Even When Searchers Tricked

    September 27, 2005
    WebProNews Staff

A study out of Cornell University has produced some interesting results regarding users’ search engine results click behavior, concluding that searchers implicitly trust search engine rankings, clicking most often on the top ranking, even when the results are secretly swapped.

The study, conducted by Cornell’s Thorsten Joachims (and analyzed further for SEM by Jakob Nielsen here), use three separate conditions to judge participants’ reactions to Google search results: normal, swapped (the top result and the second result are reversed), and reversed (re-ordered, beginning with the #10 result first and listing backward).

Joachims and his team found that users tend to read the results from top to bottom, focusing most on the top two results. Even when the top two results were switched, users consistently chose the #1 ranked link, though both link abstracts were equally examined. The researchers concluded this implied users trusted Google’s relevance ranking, and perhaps choose the link out of reflex.

However, just because the first two results’ abstracts were equally examined, it doesn’t mean they were thought about. The study also indicated that the first five results’ abstracts were given less consideration before clicking than results 6 through 10. It appears that once users begin scrolling, they suddenly become more discriminate of the links, viewing their abstracts with more scrutiny. This means that users tend to be quick on the draw when clicking the first five links, before they have to scroll down to the rest.

Though there was a large time gap between viewing the second and third ranked results’ abstract, the most interesting part of the study indicated that a second rank is not necessarily viewed as better than the third rank. This is because people tend to make decisions in pairs. So, by examining the first pair of search results, users have often chosen to click on one and not the other.

Therefore, once a judgment on the first pair is made, users may move on to the next pair, results three and four, skipping two altogether, though the paper comes short of declaring that. By a further stretch, it may be a reasonable argument that, since the top result is favored, that in every pairing, the odd numbered result wins—but that’s a harder case to make.

At any rate, according to the study, it is incredibly important to get your site listed first for your keywords, or at least in the top five before users begin to scroll. But if you’re site isn’t in the top five, take heart, dear webmaster, for ranks six and after, it’s all in how you word your abstract. Write your ninth ranked abstract better than the seventh ranked, and you win-at least, based on Joachim’s paper.