Design With Intent: Tracking Eye Movements with Heat Maps

Posted by | Search Engine Optimization, Web Design | No Comments

Since the idea of the internet and websites first caught on around 1989, marketers and designers have been studying intently to find the best way to leverage consumer interaction. Just like in traditional marketing, a great deal of research is conducted with the intent of discovering how web users engage with the information on any given website. When The Search Engine Guys take on a new client for design and optimization, one thing we try to keep in mind is the way people naturally scan any given page for information that they’re looking for. Luckily, we don’t need to spend much time researching this user interaction because there are plenty of other groups interested in this kind of data, and they have made it readily available to anyone who searches for it. I want to provide a little bit of insight into some of the more popular studies on eye-tracking and how we use these data in our designs.

Eye Tracking is Nothing New

The idea of tracking eye movements and creating diagrams dates back to the late 1800′s when a French ophthalmologist noticed his test subjects were reading in a series of short stops and quick movements, as opposed to a long, smooth sweep. Here is an early diagram of fixations and saccades, the quick movements from point to point:

Early diagram of fixations and saccades - quick movements from point to point.

This observation was further explored in the 1900′s, first with primitive contacts that had aluminum pointers, and later by reflecting beams of light off of the subjects’ eyes and onto a film. It was later observed that eye movements are largely dependent on the task given to the user. To quote Alfred L. Yarbus,

“Records of eye movements show that the observer’s attention is usually held only by certain elements of the picture…. Eye movement reflects the human thought processes; so the observer’s thought may be followed to some extent from records of eye movement (the thought accompanying the examination of the particular object). It is easy to determine from these records which elements attract the observer’s eye (and, consequently, his thought), in what order, and how often.”

In the 1980′s we saw the advent of real-time eye tracking using computers. This allowed for a much more accurate depiction of how the user interacts with any given image or text. The pieces were finally coming together to lay the foundation for eye tracking on web pages.

Microsoft Is Watching You

Well, not in the scary big brother sense. In 2009, Microsoft sponsored a popular study titled, What Do You See When You’re Surfing? Using Eye Tracking to Predict Salient Regions of Web Pages. The premise of the study was to gain “an understanding of how people allocate their visual attention when viewing Web pages”. While there had been similar studies in the past, the researchers point out that these studies were generally ambiguous, only identifying scan paths as opposed to fixation time, or using only three different sample pages for test subjects. Leveraging an eye-tracker built by Tobii Technology, Microsoft presented 361 web pages to 20 test subjects. With the data they collected, Microsoft was able to describe the general flow of eye movements, which provides us with invaluable information about user interaction. A few notable facts:

  • A 2006 study concludes that the “average U.S. based internet user viewed 120 web pages per day” (I would estimate my personal use to be three or more times that number.)
  • The majority of web browsing, roughly 50% – 80%, involved pages that the user has visited in the past.
  • Because of prior experience on the web, most users have expectations about where they will be able to find information on any given website.

The study suggested that those who use the internet once or more a day spend less time actually reading the content, and scan pages faster than those who do not use the web as often. Other findings include:

  • During the first second that a given user opens a web page, they most frequently glanced at the Center-Left, then the Top-Left, and then the Center-Center. When the user returned to the page and on subsequent views, the user is most inclined to look at the Top-Left, Top-Center, and Center-Left. These are generally where logos, headers, and navigation can be found.
  • There was much less interaction with the Center-Right and Bottom-Right sides of the pages, which may be due to the frequency of ads placed on the right side of search engines, news websites, and blogs.

F-Shaped Patterns Make Practical Sense

The most linked-to research done on eye-tracking was conducted by the Nielson Norman Group, or NN/g. The study is a 355 page report based on usage data from over 300 users looking at hundreds of different websites. The findings revealed many important insights.

We found that users’ main reading behavior was fairly consistent across many different sites and tasks. This dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components:

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F’s stem.

F-shaped heat maps.

F-shaped Heat Maps

NN/g also reported several interesting bits about different reasons users utilize search functions, how they analyze those search results, and how they choose which to choose:

  • Some people search to find the answer to a question, and get their information from the title or description of a search results, removing the need to click-thru to the actual website.
  • 59% of people don’t look past the third result on a search engine result page (SERP).
  • There is a 25% increase in attention to information delivered through bullet-points (is it working?)

One final point worth mentioning from this study is the classification of scanning behaviors, and why people may read more or less content on your website.

  • Exhaustive review: People look extensively and repeatedly at an area or page because they expect the information they want to be there, but they cannot find it.
  • Directed scanning: A person looks for specific information such as a name or word and expects to find it on the page.
  • Motivated scanning: Scan patterns fueled by good page layout, interesting content, personal interest, or a trusted suggestion.
  • Impressionable scanning: A person is more open to reading the words as the author has written them.

What Does This Mean for You?

Here at The Search Engine Guys, we pay attention to details like these to make sure that our clients’ websites are optimized to capture the attention of the user. Our goal is to make sure the user has quick access to whatever information they may have been looking for. Contact and brand information is seen quickly, followed by easy navigation to deeper areas of information. Thinking about it, it makes sense that web designers use this kind of knowledge to help map the flow of a website. Being able to leverage the instincts of a user means higher conversion rates and in turn, more leads, and that’s good news for everyone.

Bradley Lewis  June 24th, 2013 – Posted by to Search Engine Optimization.

To contact the author, emails can be sent to: blewis@thesearchengineguys.com

Preparing for Penguin 2.0

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We have been through 5 major Google algorithm updates in the last 6 years and dozens of minor updates. Google recently stated that “We make over 500 changes to our algorithms a year, so there will always be fluctuations in our rankings in addition to normal crawling and indexing.” Additionally, SEOMoz reports that there have been 76 notable algorithm updates since 2007. Most of the minor updates go largely unnoticed by everyday users of Google and may feel more like typical fluctuations due to the content changes in the index.

Major updates are more like 50 year storms, and during major updates, it’s not uncommon for sites that enjoyed dominant first page positions to drop out of the top 10 pages.

Currently, the industry is buzzing with talk of a major update that Matt Cutts has labeled Penguin 2.0. Given the buzz, we thought we would share our 10 cents on how to handle the next “big one,” whether it happens this week or in 10 weeks:

  1. Cultivate a healthy paranoia. Most in the SEO community know what this means, because in the aftermath of a major update, the chaos and confusion is thick. During this time it’s important to question everything you read. Make sure you ask yourself if the information is coming from a “talking head” who is talking about what happened or from a web master with skin in the game. Be skeptical of statements of fact and leery of predictions. Early statements may very well be true, but to know for certain, tests need to be run to validate and verify them.
  2. Don’t over-react. Let the dust settle before you draw conclusions. It is tempting to be shortsighted and draw knee-jerk conclusions during a major algorithm update, but try not to. Conclusions should be formed, but not in the opening days, or weeks following an update. If past updates are good indicators of what will play out (they may not be), it will take a few months for the SEO community to know what happened and how to proceed.
  3. Be Proactive. Since we know that in the past, the Penguin update generally affects a website based on its backlink profile, it is easy to audit websites routinely to make sure that your site is consistently meeting the quality standards set to keep it from being penalized.
  4. Have an alternative traffic plan in place. The fastest way to replace lost traffic short-term (if your site has lost organic placement) is via Google Adwords and other CPC platforms (Yahoo/Bing, Facebook, LinkedIn). Consider industry directories and industry specific email/phone and lead-generation platforms.
  5. Give it some time, but not an indefinite amount of time. Every time a major update occurs, the SEO community goes into “all hands on deck” mode for months. There is stress, panic, uncertainty, theories, frustration, and resignation. However, about 6 weeks out, the new system begins to be more clear. It’s important for clients to be in communication with vendors during this time, but not daily or even weekly. Every 10-15 business days is about right for the dots to start connecting.
  6. Be willing to adapt. Accepting that what was true yesterday may be false tomorrow is painful. Be data driven, not “hunch” driven. Just because you think Google might have done X, remember that it’s only a theory until you test it multiple times and verify it. This has always been the reality of how Google ranks websites. For whatever reason, though, people have a hard time accepting this fact. It takes humility to accept that Google holds the keys.

Ultimately, when the algorithm is updated, the best course of action is to take a deep breath and evaluate everything that changes. Compare what the sites that were penalized have in common and what the websites that held strong have in common. Take action appropriately and with time, the results will return.

Here is a helpful video from Matt Cutts on Penguin 2.0 and what changes to expect in the coming months.

 

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Posted by | Food for thought | No Comments

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Google Chairman’s Predictions Hint at AuthorRank

Posted by | Google, SEM, SEO, Uncategorized | No Comments

Excerpts from an upcoming book by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt were published by The Wall Street Journal last week. In the article, Schmidt laid out his seven predictions for the future of the digital age, but for marketers one sentence stood out from the rest:

“Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in more users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results.”

To many, this seemed less like a prediction and more like a veiled confirmation of what marketers had long suspected: AuthorRank is coming.

Great AuthorRank graphic by Mode Digital.

Great AuthorRank graphic by Mode Digital

The AuthorRank saga began in 2005 when Google filed a patent for something called “Agent Rank.” The document described how the search engine could use a number of metrics to determine an “agent’s” position within a subject area. By outlining a way to consider an agent’s popularity and authority within a given subject area, marketers inferred that Google was looking to supplement the cold statistics of search with human factors.

Traditionally, Google had not had access to enough data to warrant using social interactions as a direct ranking factor. The company found a way to solve this problem in 2011 with the introduction of Google+. With its social network providing access to a trove of qualitative data, the logical next step was to incorporate it into search. Thus, AuthorRank became a reality.

Simply put, the goal of AuthorRank is to determine the credibility and popularity of an individual and the content they publish. Many factors that will likely have an impact on AuthorRank are old-hat for SEOs, such as: the number of followers on social networks and the frequency of shares, as well as the number of links, Likes, tweets, etc. The difference, however, is that Author Rank ties these metrics to the individual who publishes the content – not the website that hosts it.

This change has huge implications in the SEO world, but the first step for anyone marketing online is to claim authorship of their content. Any content a marketer has created should be tied to a verified Google+ profile. This means an author’s Google+ profile must have a link to the pages that host their content, and vice versa. Once this is done, the long climb to dominant Author Rank begins.

Everyone in the SEO industry is anxiously awaiting Google’s Panda Update 25. It is not yet known if this specific update will further the push from Page Rank to AuthorRank, but Google is clearly headed in that direction. The web strategists at The Search Engine Guys have been preparing for the move to AuthorRank for some time. If you have questions about SEO, AuthorRank, and how to prepare your website, please contact us today.

A Smarter Way To Manage Content

Posted by | Content Development, Web Design, WordPress | No Comments

hubYears ago, we made a conscious choice to transition our sites away from ASP/ .NET and embrace  WordPress as a standard across all of our client sites.  The ease of use and flexibility that are inherent with that CMS made the decision a no-brainer.  Now, our content team is able to update sites in a matter of minutes when a request comes in from a client.

Even with the convenience factors that have made this platform the world’s dominant content management system, big problems still arise when managing hundreds of WordPress sites across a plethora of hosts and IPs.  Simply from a content uploading perspective, having to open up and pick through a spreadsheet with hundreds of user names and passwords every time you want to get into a site becomes quite the chore.  Want to test a module over all of your sites?  Get ready for an all night marathon and carpal tunnel syndrome.

We needed a solution that would give us the ability to do a lot of things from one central hub and it seems we have found one that fills our requirements and much more.  After a lot of research, we came to the conclusion that InfiniteWP is the answer we’ve been looking for.  Not only can we upload to and edit any of our sites from one place, we are able to check analytics;  globally install, configure and test modules; check analytics;  schedule backups and a lot more, from one place.

If you’re managing more than one WordPress site and want to make the most of your time and efforts, it’s time to sit up and take notice of this revolutionizing product.

From Page Rank to Author Rank: the Changing Landscape of SEO

Posted by | Google, Search Engine Marketing, Search Engine Optimization, Uncategorized | One Comment

author-rank2At the annual Search Engine Strategies conference in London last week, Searchmetrics founder Marcus Tober lead a session on “Meaningful SEO Metrics.” In the presentation, Tober tackled a variety of topics including the move from page rank to author rank in the future of SEO.

The presentation began with Tober explaining the importance of the “SEO visibility” metric. He said that the cumulative number of all relevant keyword rankings for a market reveal important trends. The ranking on single keywords is worth less, according to Tober, because of personalization, localization, and search history. Analyzing SEO strategies with this broader scope will allow businesses to see trends that are independent from seasonal effects or traffic spikes based on independent events.

One of the most notable moments in the presentation was when Tober directly disputed a statement made by Google Engineer Matt Cutts. When asked if Google +1′s affect a website’s ranking, Cutts answered “Not really.” Cutts claimed there was no “direct effect” on rankings from +1′s, but said Google does “have an authorship proposal.”

According to Tober, Cutts was not telling the whole truth. Tober excitedly told the audience that +1′s do indeed influence search. He explained that several experiments conducted over the last year in Searchmetrics Labs found that Google+ triggers instant indexation. He claimed that based on analysis with different unique postings, “URLs with a +1 are being indexed instantly and rank for the title as well as some longtail queries.”

These findings, Tober said, illustrate the move from Page Rank to Author Rank in SEO. He quoted Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt saying “Within search results, information tied to a verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results.” Tober continued to say “the true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.”

Tober concluded the presentation by reminding SEOs to focus on the big picture and not get bogged down studying one metric. He recommended that marketers measure activity and outcomes saying, “understand how the business makes money, build a simple model, and remember that the best metrics guide behavior.”

Internally at the search engine guys we have been watching this closely… since May of 2012 Google+ profiles, circles and +1 (as well as other social media profiles which may factor into the author-rank equation) have become increasingly important to our SEO strategies. Please contact us to schedule a call with a web strategist if you have questions about SEO, author rank and how to prepare your website to “weather the storm” as Google continues to shift from page rank to author-rank.

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