No one knows exactly what goes into Google’s search engine algorithm, PageRank.

Even for marketing professionals, it’s a mystery – but that doesn’t mean search engine marketers shouldn’t try to crack the code on what works well in search, and what doesn’t.

Take Mediative, a media agency headquartered in Montreal, Que. and a division of Yellow Pages Group. With offices across Canada, the agency has just launched new research showing how people search differently, compared to just a few years ago.

The biggest finding? That people no longer rely on the Golden Triangle, meaning their eyes would drift to the search results in the top left corner, or the top three or four results listed on a Google search engine results page (SERP). Altogether, users might only consider 10 blue links in all.

The Golden Triangle was the main way people searched about 10 years ago – but now, people are way smarter about how they search, thanks to changes in Google’s SERP, says Ian Everdell, manager of user experience ad research at Mediative.

“They would look at the top three or four results, scan across the title of the second one, and sort of decide from that … We became trained very quickly as searchers that Google would most likely present the best results at the top of the page,” Everdell said.

“The SERP is drastically different from just 10 blue links now. Google has added in the knowledge graph, the carousel results, local listings, images, videos, news results, blog posts, in-depth articles. So there’s all kinds of other things on the SERP that could be influencing where we look on the page,” he said, pointing to the way Google now shows conversion rates or weather in its knowledge graph, or a list of tourist attractions accompanied by photos in its carousel results.

To do its research, Mediative ran a series of tests with a mixed group of 53 people in February and March, getting them to try about 40 different search tasks, like finding a travel destination, looking for hotels, booking flights, searching for services like plumbers or movers, and so on.

Then researchers performed what they call “eyetracking analysis,” a method used in market research for the past 30 years or so, Everdell said. The method gets researchers to dig deeper into how and why people look at certain pieces of text, packaging, content displayed on a site, and so on.

With this particular study, what they found was that people are now faster and smarter than ever when it comes to finding what they want on a Google SERP. That’s because we’ve now become “conditioned” to how Google presents its search results on a page, Everdell said.

For one thing, people typically know the difference between organic results and paid advertising, and at the beginning of a search, they’ll typically ignore the ads, he added. What happens now is that people will skip the Golden Triangle method of looking at a page, opting instead to vertically scan the results down the left edge of a page.

The reasons behind this? One clue may be in how people perform Google searches on mobile. Typically, people will look straight down a page when using a mobile device to search, and that habit may have crossed over onto the desktop, Everdell said. The other reason is that people have now started “chunking,” he said.

“With all of these new additions to the SERP … instead of looking at a group of four organic results, we’ll look at the different types of results on a page. We’ll briefly look at the carousel, and then we’ll briefly look at the paid ads, and then we’ll briefly look at the organic results, and then we’ll briefly look at the local listings,” he said.

“And from those, we’ll sort of pick the one that’s more relevant to our intent, and then do more of a Golden Triangle scanning within that chunk. So we’re still building a consideration set, but it’s from different types of results, rather than from one specific type of result.”

Beyond following how people look at search results, Mediative also tracked the amount of time people spend eyeballing a page result. As you might have guessed, users now take less time to decide whether a page is useful to them – typically, they’ll spend just 1.17 seconds viewing each listing. In the past, they would take almost two seconds.

So what does all this mean for search engine marketers? The key here is to give users the best experience possible when optimizing sites for search, Everdell said.

“I would say [it is more difficult to get people’s attention]. Certainly there’s more competition on the SERP. You’re obviously fighting all of those visual elements, and really, one of the biggest things is that Google doesn’t want you to leave the SERP,” he said.

“Their ultimate goal is to get you your answer without you having to go anywhere … There are more people doing SEO and SEM and doing it well now than there were nine years ago, and the algorithms have gotten more complex.”

The solution is to take advantage of any time when your site ranks organically, and to get all the basics right – consistent company name, address, contact information, appearing in local listings, ensuring ratings are available if they exist, and so on.

Still, the key here is to try to benefit the user, instead of finding ways of gaming the search engine, Everdell said.

“It doesn’t make sense to chase that algorithm. It makes sense to chase that strong, user content-centred strategy.”

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