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Getting to the Meat of the Search

I have been doing applied research on the usability of search engine results pages (SERPs) for many years (for example here and here. My interest is very practical – how do we make these pages useful given that most web users are not experts in Boolean logic, don’t want to spend that much mental effort on the germane load of carefully scanning the page, and are not familiar with the business models behind sponsored search. These limitations should impel SERP designers to cater to these limitations in the user experiences they are creating. Isn’t that what user-centered design is all about?

My Take

There are enough flaws in SERP design to fill several articles, but I will focus on one today that was a completely fortuitous discovery for me (I love those). It was a casual comment from a listener of the Daily Tech News Show that was read and very briefly discussed on the show. The person who called in was commenting on the common wisdom that few people click to the second (or later) pages of the results. Most people will either take the best option on the first page, change their query, or give up. They assume that if a result is not good enough to make it to the first page, it probably isn’t worth the time to check out. In Google we trust!

The caller had a totally different angle. Anyone paying attention would notice that sponsored links have grown from a few subtle links on the right margin to a few additional subtle links at the top of the results list – and now to almost the whole first page. Furthermore, they are often hard to differentiate from the organic results unless you look closely.

So here was his logic. There is now so much cognitive load required to figure out where the organic links start that he finds more value to immediately click to the second page, which doesn’t have sponsored links (who would pay for a page that no one looks at?). He is willing to sacrifice a little bit of precision in the results to avoid the cognitive load of parsing the page.

When I first heard the comment, I had two thoughts. First, I thought it was a very simple example of speed/accuracy tradeoff. Cognitive effort is part of what we mean by speed (defined generally) and precision is part of accuracy. The second thought was “Brilliant – why didn’t I ever think of that?”

Your Turn

I have observed enough search engine users to know that few of you probably use this technique, but if you do please let us know. My main questions are:

  • Is this a good strategy? Perhaps one you will try?
  • Do you see users in other contexts doing something similar? Another example I have seen, although not exactly a user interface example, is grocery shopping. Sometimes we have brand preferences and sometimes we look at the packaging carefully to find the best choice. But often, we avoid the cognitive load and just pick the first box/can/bag that looks relevant.

Image Credit: Google

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