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Google's 'Golden Triangle'

TORONTO -- Search Engine Strategies Toronto got under way today with the usual slew of panels on how to improve and optimize search engine results.

New to the event this year was a standing-room-only panel that included Gord Hotchkiss, president and CEO of search research firm Enquiro, and Debbie Jaffe, product marketing manager at Google. The panelists looked at ways to influence and understand search behavior.

According to panel moderator Chris Sherman, who is associate editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, all optimization was essentially done "by the seat of your pants" in the "early" days of search marketing.

Hotchkiss began his presentation by showing the results from his firm's eye-tracking study, which measured where searchers' eyes go on a search page when query results are returned.

Just like the famed Bermuda Triangle that traps wayward travelers, there is a "golden triangle" on Google that "traps" users' eyeballs. The golden triangle is a triangle-shaped viewing pattern that reaches out from the top left of the search results page.

Users then generally scan the rest of the page in an F-pattern looking laterally at the top results and then vertically, with less lateral scanning the further down the list they went. The golden triangle includes the top three organic search results returned after which, according to Hotchkiss, user eyeball-scanning drops off dramatically. The top-three results had 100 percent visibility, the fourth had 85 percent, the fifth had 60 percent and the sixth dropped down to 50 percent.

Hotchkiss said that 72 percent of users clicked on the first link of interest. Once a user moves to the second results page, the golden triangle dissipates somewhat, with overall page visibility spreading out over a much "wider" area. Only 50 percent of users, however, move to the second page of search results after making the initial query.

Looking beyond the golden triangle, the concept of semantic mapping is key to understanding and possibly influencing searcher behavior.

Hotchkiss argued that searchers have a collection of words in their heads that are more than just the query terms they type into the search field, but that they will subconsciously scan for in the search results. Those terms will include additional related terms that are relevant to why they are searching in the first place.

As an example, he conducted a digital camera search, where the eye-tracking map showed the user focusing on the fourth result as opposed to one of the top three. The information included in the titles of the search return, such as megapixel size, were relevant to what searchers were likely actually searching for as opposed to the simple query entered.

"Understand the semantic map in you're customers' minds when they search," Hotchkiss said. That is, try and think of user motivation and what other terms would be part of their search intent and include that in the page title and content of the page.

Jaffe agreed with Hotchkiss' findings for the most part. But she added that the golden triangle, in terms of clicks at least, is more focused specifically on the top organic results as opposed to the whole top-left corner.

The top-left corner includes sponsored links and the Google OneBox, which, in addition to containing relevant Google news items, may also include Froogle data.

Google considers news and Froogle feeds organic, or non-sponsored, though clicks on those listings may not necessarily be as high as the top organic listings that don't appear in the GoogleOne box.

"Users may see the GoogleOne box, but they don't click on it as much, as people just don't think that they are organic," Jaffe explained.

On Froogle itself though, users tend to click more on the ads than on the search results, she added.

Though Google makes most of its money from sponsored and paid listings, Jaffe confirmed that at least 75 percent of all clicks are made on organic listings. When asked by an audience member why Google wouldn't put more sponsored links in the golden triangle, Jaffe responded, "Google's primary focus is organic search."

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