A major new research report has revealed that search users adopt a ‘pinball pattern’ when navigating search engine results pages.

The findings, by Nielsen Norman Group, show that more complex and rich search results have led to a change in user behaviour with the traditional linear scan of information replaced by a zigzag, pinball pattern.

Previously search engine results pages (SERPs) would be a standardised text heavy list of links, with sponsored results at the top and bottom or side plus the organic results across the main screen. Today, the design is very different and more often than not, there will be as a minimum, one interactive feature. This could take the form of a knowledge panel or a map for example. In its first study on the subject several years ago, Nielsen Normal Group concluded that 59% of search users adopted a sequential approach to reviewing the search results pages – this is clearly no longer the case as the addition of new formats and features compete for user attention.

The Pinball

The pinball pattern means search users now absorb information in a non-linear pattern and will “bounce” from search results to rich features when presented with the results page.

The report authors say it’s very clear why attention is now so scattered, remarking “Today’s SERPs often involve not only links, but also images, video, embedded text content, and even interactive features. Any given search can return an assortment of different visual elements. The variety of information and presentation plays a critical role in shifting user attention across the SERP.”

The location of additional elements on the page, and the number of those elements per search query, was also found to affect eye movement and attention. The more elements dispersed around the page, the more pronounced the pinball affect.

Researchers say, “The complex, dynamic content on result pages gets a lot of attention. When SERP features (like featured snippets) were present on a SERP in our study, we found that they received looks in 74% of cases (with a 95% confidence interval of 66–81%).”

Compelling text

Some search users will gravitate towards text where there are compelling keywords, making knowledge panels and sublinks within the main organic search results a key draw for user attention. Sponsored shopping results were shown to grab a large chunk of the eye gaze when users were searching for specific items such as home appliances – perhaps due to text such as ‘offers’ and ‘deal’.

One thing that was apparent is that search result layout isn’t consistent and it will change depending on the search query – this also acts on the user and their gaze because it means the user is forced to glance more around the page to find the information that they are actually looking for. The study confirmed that on average, the search user needs 5.7 seconds to take in the page before they make a selection and click on a link.

Takeaways for brands

One of the key takeaways from this research is that you don’t necessarily have to occupy the very top spot in the search results to garner most of the attention and clicks. Because the gaze now pinballs around the page, having a featured snippet, images, Shopping images or Maps listings can also earn you visibility.