What You See Is What You Click

New Research Reveals How Consumers View Search Engine Results

Sep 29, 2020
As Featured In 
Marketing Science

Looking for something online? Your 10-second search probably goes a lot like this: Type something into Google, scan the list of results and click one. A multibillion-dollar search engine marketing industry has sprung up to help companies figure how to make sure you click their link. But to click something, you first have to look at it. And how people look at search results might not happen the way advertisers think it does, according to new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“They actually look at very few areas of the screen,” says Michael Trusov, the Maryland Smith marketing professor who conducted the research. “It’s not like they read the whole page from top to bottom. They move their eyes in certain general patterns, tending to start from the top and moving down with their eyes, but there’s a lot of skipping and jumping from one section to another section, and not inspecting every single listing.”

And you can’t read from the parts of the screen that your eyes don’t even focus on, he says. Eye tracking can help to shed light on this process. Trusov worked with Savannah Wei Shi, a Maryland Smith PhD now at Santa Clara University, to do just that for the research, forthcoming in Marketing Science. Using equipment in Smith’s Behavioral Laboratory that captures eye movements across a web page, along with a custom-built Google-like search engine, they conducted experiments that had participants performing a series of online searches.

“We wanted to understand what drives a person’s inspection strategy, what they’re actually looking at on the screen, and how it affects their decision for where they are going to look next,” says Trusov.

People use search engines to navigate to a specific website, to search for information, or to look to buy something.

“Depending on your search goal, you may have different ways that your eyes will be moving around,” says Trusov. “As they move around, conditional on whatever goal you have in mind, composition of those listings will also have an impact on how likely you are to skip listings or move to other parts of the page, scroll the page up or down, or how many listings you are likely to inspect, given what you’ve already seen on a particular screen.”

In both paid and organic searches, the key thing is to get people’s eyes on your listing so they click through to your website, says Trusov. Unsurprisingly, the higher your listing appears on the search results pages, the higher your chances are of getting people to actually come to your website. “There is a direct relationship,” he says.

In the paid search world, this is directly related to how much you are willing to pay for that top slot. But, at least in some contexts, being in the top spot might not be as critical as advertisers thought to get click-throughs, and it might not be worth paying for, says Trusov.

Here’s how different types of searchers view results pages:

Transactional searchers – those looking to buy something – inspect the highest number of listings and subscreens, are most likely to scroll and look “below the fold” (the area where the screen cuts off and requires scrolling), but have the shortest attention span per listing. The content they most recently inspected predicts whether they will scroll. Compared to other search tasks, these searchers are more likely to click on posts in the top-sponsored section of the results page.

Informational searchers looking for an answer spend the longest time inspecting each listing. They click listings with more descriptive words and are less likely to repeatedly inspect or click listings with more transactional content, like prices.

Navigational searchers just trying to get to a particular website inspect the lowest number of listings and subscreens. They scroll the least and are least likely to go below the fold. They are also least likely to click a listing in the top-sponsored section.

Marketers should care about the environment and context in which their listings are being placed in search results pages. If you can’t do your own eye-tracking tests to see how your search results play out with consumers, then you can still tweak your search-engine strategy, says Trusov.

“This is the message for advertisers: ‘You don’t always have to just blindly aim for top position,’ which is obviously the premium position, but it also costs you more,” he says. “In some cases, being in the number one position is absolutely essential to get consumers’ visual attention, but in some cases it’s not as critical. Being context aware, you can save yourself a few dollars by showing lower in the search results rank but still get a reasonable share of consumers’ attention.”

The full article, “The Path to Click: Are You On It?,” is forthcoming in Marketing Science.


About the Author(s)

Michael Trusov is a professor of marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He received his PhD degree from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. He also holds a master's degree in computer science and a master's degree in business administration. His research interests include internet marketing (social media marketing, search engine marketing, social networks, clickstream analysis, electronic word-of-mouth marketing, e-commerce, recommendation systems, consumer-generated content), text analysis, eye-tracking, and data mining. Trusov has extensive industry experience. He spent seven years working in the area of software development and IT consulting in the Southern California region, specializing in marketing automation, database management, Internet applications, and e-commerce.

More in


The Other Side of Mobile App Adoption
New research shows higher app adoption among hotel chains could be linked to lower spending among lower level loyalty customers, who are more likely to use apps to get the best deals.
Apr 13, 2021
Behind The Dynamics of What We Buy
New research pair the data collected at checkout at major retailers with the “why” behind consumer purchases.
Mar 23, 2021
Who Wins With Sponsored Content Advertising?
Media platforms fiercely competing with other outlets for ad dollars should be cautious when evaluating the profitability of this new ad format, finds new research.
Jan 21, 2021
Robert H. Smith School of Business
Map of Robert H. Smith School of Business
University of Maryland
Robert H. Smith School of Business
Van Munching Hall
College Park MD 20742