Eye-Tracking Data and SEO: Keep It in Perspective

Chris Sherman recently wrote about a new study that defines a “golden triangle,” or where Web sites should appear in Google for optimal search engine visibility, in both paid and natural search results:

The study found that most viewers looked at results in an “F” shaped scan pattern, with the eye traveling vertically along the far left side of the results looking for visual cues (relevant words, brands, etc) and then scanning to the right, as if something caught the participant’s attention…. The researchers called this pattern a “golden triangle” at the top of result pages.

As a professional search engine optimizer, I guess I was supposed to be amazed and thoroughly impressed with this study’s conclusions. As a Web developer and usability professional, I’ll try to present my initial reaction with utmost clarity and sincerity: Duh!

Eye Tracking and Search Result Pages

The groups that put together this study appear to specialize in search engine advertising, not SEO (define). If they did, they’d know many Web developers create search sections for Web sites. Creating user-friendly, intuitive search pages isn’t as easy as one might think.

Where will the search box be located? How will search results be displayed? How many characters in the title tag will be included in each search result? Will the description be extracted from a meta-tag description, an actual page snippet, or a combination of the two? How many results per page will display? Will site visitors be able to personalize search result settings? What advanced search options will be available?

Once the site owner answers these questions, usability testing begins with wire-frame designs on paper. If a client can’t afford usability testing, we tend to go with current usability standards. As always, we measure and test search pages’ effectiveness through Web analytics data.

Trust me. Usability pros already knew about the golden triangle. Better, they know the hot spots on a variety of home, category, product, news, and other Web pages.

Eye Tracking and SEM

I might not have been too impressed with the actual data, but I was impressed more search engine marketers are becoming usability-savvy — finally.

Not sure how end users will respond to an advertising landing page? Eye tracking can help, especially if the design team doesn’t understand how to use color, typefaces, white space, and animation to draw attention to important elements on a page.

In addition, search-friendly Web developers will have some extra data before they launch an updated site design.

Eye tracking isn’t for everyone. It can be expensive and somewhat time consuming, especially when you have to find the ideal number of qualified participants. But it is kind of fun. Every time I put on an oculometer, I feel like Doc in the first “Back to the Future” movie.

Search Engine Position Obsession

I worry about how search engine optimizers will use the data from this survey. Undoubtedly, they’ll use it as “proof” a top-five search engine position is critical for sales.

Ever have a client whose site must absolutely, positively be in the number one position on all the search engines? No matter what the site looks like? I have a client with over 900 top search engine positions for targeted keyword phrases in the healthcare industry. These are competitive phrases, with local qualifiers and everything. Of these 900 top positions, approximately 730 are in the top 10.

With all this search engine visibility, the site generates thousands upon thousands of qualified leads and millions of dollars in sales, right? Wrong. The site generates very little income. Here’s why.

The content hasn’t been updated since 1998, nor has the design been updated to accommodate newer browsers. In addition, the primary decision-maker has an unusually small computer monitor. When the Web development firm suggested a more user-friendly layout that fits easily on a 800 x 600 monitor, this decision-maker saw horizontal scrolling in the new design and vetoed further development.

A site can have hundreds, even thousands, of natural search engine positions and still get little or no return on investment (ROI). Many Web sites get plenty of search engine traffic and don’t get a good ROI. That’s why SEO’s main focus of should not be positioning.

Another client doesn’t have many top search engine positions. Only a handful of keyword phrases actually rank within the top 30 search results. After reviewing the site statistics, we determined the site receives over 30 percent of its natural traffic from search engines, up from less than 5 percent in the previous year.

When we compare the number of qualified sales leads, with resulting sales generated from search engine traffic in 2004 and 2005, the numbers impress me. Sales leads doubled with only a few top search engine positions? Nine hundred top search engine positions, but still no sales? What does this prove?

Positioning is not nearly as important as people think it is. This brings me back to the eye-tracking study.


Eye-tracking, search engine positioning, Web analytics — all this data is important in creating an effective Web site. Let’s keep the data in perspective. Should a business owner whose site already receives outstanding ROI suddenly go after top-five positions as a result of this eye-tracking study? I don’t believe that’s necessary.

So kudos to search engine marketers for becoming more usability-savvy. But remember: keep data in perspective.

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