A few weeks ago in Toronto at Search Engine Strategies, I mentioned in one of the sessions I was moderating that in Canada, the sponsored search listings are the slums of the results page. In this case, I meant that until the big brands and the recognized advertisers move into sponsored search in a meaningful way, from the user perspective there is little value or relevancy in the search ads. And that means they will avoid them. The likelihood of a user to interact with a top sponsored ad is directly tied to the quality of that ad itself. This is why both Google and Yahoo now offer quality scoring to try to improve the relevance in these ads.
They’re “in the way.”
First, let’s understand a fundamental usability principle with the typical search results page. There is a dramatic difference in how users interact with top sponsored ads (also called the “North” ads) versus the right rail side sponsored ads (called the “East” ads). Top sponsored ads are directly in the navigation path. We orient ourselves in the upper left of the results page and begin down from there. Usually a sponsored ad is the first thing we would see. In fact, in our recent eye tracking study we saw that this was true in well over 80% of the user interactions we monitored. First fixations (80.6% of all sessions for Google, 86.7% for MSN and 83.7% for Yahoo) and first significant scanning (71% of all sessions for Google, 55% for MSN and 79.1% for Yahoo) usually happened in top sponsored ads when they’re present. Even when our searches are more research-based, if top sponsored ads appear we tend to at least glance at them on our way down to the organic results.
Side sponsored ads are treated as a sidebar by the user. They’re not in any direct navigational paths, they’re more obviously identified as advertising and they tend to be in the portion of the page that people set aside for further scanning if and when they choose to. They’re far removed from the “area of greatest promise” on the search results page.
This is why quality and relevancy on top sponsored is much more important than quality and relevancy on the side sponsored ads. The quality of the ads that appear on the top of the page directly impact the quality of the user experience. This is why Google has such a stringent threshold that determines whether ads on the right rail are promoted to the top. The minute and ad makes the move over, they have to meet stringent criteria on the part of the user regarding relevancy and quality.
The Canadian search slums
The reason I took Canadian search results to task was that Canadians are generally three to four years behind Americans in adopting search. This means that on the Google Canada or Yahoo Canada the ads you’re going to see are generally not from vendors or brands that you recognize. Think back several years to when ads first appeared on Google and Yahoo’s search results page. The likelihood for a user to click on an ad back then was far less than what it is today. At Enquiro we actually did studies and asked people why they were reluctant to click on sponsored ads. The most common response was that they didn’t trust the advertiser. They felt that by clicking on the link they would end up on an affiliate or spam site and may get caught in a never-ending cascade of pop-up windows. Searchers were very wary. In the US, this attitude began to change as known brands began to adopt search. If you’re doing a search for a digital camera and you see brands like Nikon, Pentax, Kodak, HP and Canon appear, you have any greater sense of trust in both the relevancy and quality of those links. You’re more likely to click through.
As more advertisers adopt search and are promoted to the top spot through the quality of their ads and votes of confidence on the part of users through their click throughs, the more valuable this real estate becomes from the user’s perspective. In no longer becomes a “slum” but a prime destination.
Today when I did a search in Canada on Google for digital camera, only one brand, HP, showed and it actually shows on the right rail.
To make matters worse, the generic ad they’re running that shows at the top is actually for HP printers. It has nothing to do with digital cameras. The HP ad for digital cameras is 3 positions lower. There’s no usefulness and little to reinforce a sense of trust on the part of the user. As far as the Canadian search user is concerned, this real estate is a slum. There’s no reason to go there. So you avoid it and skip quicker to the organic listings.
People avoid slums
In two separate studies we saw dramatic evidence of this tendency. In our second eye tracking study where we compared Google, Yahoo and Microsoft search (at the time Microsoft search property was MSN) we noticed a strange inconsistency in the interaction with top sponsored ads on the Microsoft search results page. In some cases we saw a level of interaction that was consistent with what we were seeing on Google and Yahoo. But in a number of cases we saw virtually no interaction with top sponsored ads. It was almost as if banner blindness was occurring. As I stated before, we saw 86.7% of the sessions had their first fixation in these top sponsored ads, but only 55% stuck around to start scanning. This was a significantly higher drop off rate than we saw on Google or Yahoo.
As we started looking at some of the sessions in more detail we noticed that there was a dramatic drop in the quality of the sponsored ads that were appearing on MSN in these cases. By doing a little research we found that the time period in which we were doing the data collection for the study corresponded to exactly the same time that Microsoft was experimenting with showing ads from their own inventory in the top sponsored locations rather than from their partner, Yahoo’s inventory. As we looked at the sessions it also became obvious that the relevancy and quality of the ads that were coming from the Microsoft inventory was dramatically lower than those coming from the more mature Yahoo inventory. We went through and divided up the session based on the inventories from which the ads were drawn and did some comparison. The results were startling to say the least. When the ads came from Yahoo’s inventory, users spend an average of 4.93 seconds looking at them, which represented 41.6% of the total time on the page. These ads also captured 42.86% of the click throughs. But when the ads came from Microsoft’s inventory, users spent an average of 1.5 seconds on them, representing just 11.48% of the total time on the page. And these ads captured only 5.8% of the click throughs. Microsoft turned their top sponsored spots into a low rent district and users moved out.
China’s challenge with sponsored search
Canada isn’t the only search market that’s dealing with advertisers that are slow to adopt search, turning sponsored ads into a liability for the user. The other example that we saw recently was in the Chinese eye tracking study, where we were amazed by how rapidly users scanned over the first five or six results. We saw this behavior both on Google and Baidu in China. See below for a second by second time lapse of a typical interaction with Google in the US, compared to Google and Baidu in China:
Notice that in the US, there’s a lot of back and forth consideration between top sponsored and top organic in the first 5 seconds, with little scanning activity beyond. In China, many users have quickly scanned the entire page in those same 5 seconds.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to one of the top engineers working on Google China and asked him why this might be this case. He said that in past user studies they’ve heard that Chinese users assume the first five or six results are sponsored and quickly scan over them. This is particularly true on Baidu where there’s little transparency between what’s organic and what are sponsored results. The other reality with Baidu is that many of the sponsored ads (although they don’t show as sponsored) are filled with affiliate advertisers and spam. Again, whether the listings are clearly indicated as being sponsored or whether they’re sponsored results in the guise of organic, relevancy is not present and so users quickly move past these to where they will find relevancy further down the page. By playing games with top of page relevancy, the engines are hurting their users, and that will eventually translate into declining market share.
This might seem like good news for the advertiser, given that there’s less competition in the prime top spot. The reverse is actually true. There’s a reason why no one wants to sets up shop in a slum. People don’t want to go there. The same is true for sponsored results. The fewer trustworthy brands and vendors you find in the top sponsored search results, the less time that searchers will spend there. It’s commonly known in consumer behavior that buyers like alternatives. They like choices and the ability to compare a number of different options before making their decision. This is true in search as well. Ideally we’d like to see two or three recognized brands or vendors at the top of the search results when we’re considering a purchase. And even after trusted brands and vendors start moving into the sponsored spaces it will take a little while for us to overcome our mistrust of the real estate and engage with them more actively. Interaction with sponsored advertising will happen, but only when an influx of advertisers transform them from a slum to a preferred shopping destination.
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