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Are Users Ignoring Paid Search Listings?

Kevin M. Ryan
Are Users Ignoring Paid Search Listings? Kevin M. Ryan

How much time do you spend thinking about your Fovea? Chances are… not so much. The central part of your retina in which images are projected when we look at something might just tell a story about how we view websites and search results.

Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) brought foveal action into the spotlight last week with its latest round of usability and eye tracking studies that sought to answer a very important question about user behavior. Are users becoming blind to search listings-- particularly the sponsored listings that marketers pay for and which get displayed in different ways on different search engines?

From the people who brought us the concept of banner blindness, a study in user behavior as part of their Usability Week 2006 NN/ g brought us the Eye Tracking Web Usability day: this was the first instance of a non-search entity sponsored or delivered research, as well as a literal look into the eye of the searcher.

Analysis psychosis
Want to conduct eye tracking research? Strap a camera onto the heads of a few people and watch the fun. NN/g's research was a bit more complicated than that with 232 study participants that were given 50 test tasks in one or two hour sessions.

For the unindoctrinated, an eye chart delivers a graphic image indicating the location of a user's eye fixations during web activity. The image resembles an infrared map of user views with big color coded splotches to indicate where a user's eye was directed most often. The chart is overlaid on the target web site or search result so the researcher can evaluate eye fixation information.
Test subjects ranged from 18 to 64 years of age with 63 percent of users in the 30 to 49 range. They were college educated and 83 percent of them lived in an urban environment. Most had college degrees (69 percent) and they were observed in a "lab" (that is, office) environment.

Users were given open-ended tasks to perform while browsing and searching: like finding a gift for a nephew or locating information on the actual speed at which Mako Sharks swim. They were also given closed-ended tasks such as buying a phone at T-Mobile, buying a shirt at Neiman Marcus or looking up a specific record of baseball great George Brett.

Searchers behaving badly
The combination of qualitative and quantitative data gathering proved interesting, insightful and even comical at times. Qualitative data was delineated as such by the presence of users thinking aloud as they searched or performed tasks.

While qualitative information may decrease the perceived scientific impact of the research (users tended to spoil eye tracking information) the first point to take notice of in observing search activity spoke volumes. There is little time to engage a searcher, and video playback of a search query was so fast that it had to be played back in slow motion.

People still can't spell. Interestingly enough, one of the test subjects spent time in a search result even after recognizing she spelled the query wrong. The test subject viewed the oddly irrelevant results for the misspelled query and later returned to the top of the page to click on the redirect link back to the correctly spelled query.

We have known for some time that misspellings are money makers in paid search. If nothing else, this validates misspellings as an effective search engine advertising or natural search engine optimization practice.

Confirmed knowledge
Users also scanned multiple listings in search results. The click ultimately went to what they deemed reliable, relevant sources of information. Top sponsored links got all of the attention, and researchers were quick to point out that the more closely sponsored results resembled unsponsored or natural listings, the more attention the paid listings received.

Users tended to flip flop from paid to sponsored listings and judged the entire row of sponsored listings based on the perceived relevance or efficacy of the first listing. This behavior should be a warning to advertisers and search sites buying and selling paid listings in bulk without supporting content.

Search is great for newbies and web veterans alike. Another eye chart compared experienced web users with less experienced users. The two eye charts were nearly identical.

Test subjects also tended to read an entire page of results in gathering information before clicking. One user read the entire page of listings when researching the George Brett question.

Not yet blind
If nothing else, eye tracking is an interesting look into the mind of users. The real test of any eye tracking analysis would be changes that occur with site design revamps or year over year analysis. The problem is, with the speed at which search has been changing said time and space analysis probably won't tell us much.

Local search, video search, adding icons to maps, inserting images into directive search results and the constant ebb and flow of contextual listing positions make it difficult to determine the impact of changes to the search or content page with search listings over time.

Though users don't appear to be ignoring search listings yet, the fascination with viewing big red burn-in eye chart graphics on web sites and search results is an interesting look inside the mind of the searcher.

The biggest illusion is that we have any privacy online. It's a myth. It's like the myth of airline safety and the fact that the security procedure makes us strip down before we board the plane, regardless of the fact that 90 percent of the cargo on that plane has never been checked. The illusion of security makes us feel better, and that is exactly what a bill like this would do, make us feel better. It will make us feel like we have control over our online data. But the only control we have is over what we do online.

Online search companies are providing a service -- a damn cool service, I might add -- and one that is FREE for the consumer. Hmmm... think about that. You are getting something for free and then trying to tell the company that is providing that service not to track you. Wow, that's a great business model. I give you something for free, something that costs an enormous amount of money and a lot of brain power to provide, and we are just supposed to sit back and let you look around our entire store and do nothing?

If you don't want to be tracked, don't come in the door. It's your choice. My company even gives you that choice to surf anonymously, so that we don't track your searches. Just click a button on the homepage. And that is my point. It's your choice what you put online, and it's your choice if you are concerned about privacy to seek out solutions that protect you, the consumer.

A lot of people feel this anonymity because they are in the confines of their own homes. It's the kind of anonymity that lets the side of ourselves we do not tend to show society out. It's more alternative, subversive, dark, kinky, and to be honest, fun. Just imagine, however, that there is your mom looking over your shoulder the entire time you are surfing. Yes, it's all being tracked somewhere, but the sad thing is that it really is not being used for evil. These companies are just trying to provide consumers with ads that are actually more relevant to them. The web runs on advertising, limit it at our peril. If search engines didn't have an auction bid model for keywords that made sure the landing page was relevant to the paid ad, then you wouldn't get any ads that were targeted. But they do. If you search for something kinky, guess what? A text ad may be delivered that just may be relevant to your search. That's fine, you just don't want your name attached to it, I understand.

For some reason in the offline world, it seems completely acceptable to data-mine to your heart's content. Why do you think grocery stores give you discounts for using a simple card? Because they so value you as a customer and they are just being nice? Are you really that naive? That information with your purchase habits is immediately tied to your name and your address. Are you single and do you buy booze, condoms and cigarettes? Guess what? Don't be surprised if you start getting some fun, hip catalogs in the mail. But that is not where the danger is; the danger is that some health insurance company buys a grocery chain and then starts to adjust insurance rates based on your lifestyle. Think about that the next time you throw your grocery card down for that carton of cigarettes and the three liter bottle of vodka. That is scary, and a much more probable scenario than all the scare tactics about online privacy and behavioral targeting.

Look, online privacy is a good thing, and if Congress does pass legislation, then at least it will make it a level playing field for everyone. But don't be surprised if all of a sudden those banner ads and other forms of advertising online start to become a little less relevant and a lot more annoying.

Sean X Cummings  is director of marketing for Ask.com.

Speaking of Gmail, it was seven years ago that Google's webmail service launched with much fanfare. Out of the gate, Gmail raised the bar by offering a ton more storage (1 GB vs. a few MBs) and functionality (message threading, search, and an AJAX interface) than AOL, Hotmail, or Yahoo Mail did at the time.

Fast forward to today, and estimates peg Gmail as the third-largest webmail provider (behind Yahoo Mail and Hotmail) with perhaps as many as 200 million accounts (exact numbers aren't shared by Google). Thus, after seven years on the market, Gmail has yet to displace the webmail market leaders -- even though its product seamlessly integrates with Google Docs, Chat, Calendar, Buzz, and more.

The Gmail precedent should be particularly instructive to email marketers concerned about overnight Facebook Messages domination. Yes, Facebook has 600 million members worldwide, but there are an estimated 3 billion email accounts worldwide today. Even if Facebook could get all of its users to convert to @facebook.com email addresses, they would still represent just one-fifth of the worldwide email account base.

Both logic and history suggest, however, that Facebook will have a long road to get its users to adopt @facebook.com email addresses. Remember, all of those users have existing email accounts. We know this because Facebook requires you to have an email address to register.

Moreover, the Facebook Messages rollout differs significantly from the Gmail rollout. Gmail drove adoption with a pretty significant incentive -- vast increases in storage and functionality over AOL, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail. By comparison, the only point of differentiation for Facebook Messages at present is its integration with Facebook. While such integration might be enough to drive some adoption, the Gmail precedent suggests that @facebook.com email addresses will creep, not burst, onto marketing lists in the coming years -- and that's a pace that should prove manageable to email marketers.

As an experienced Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo Mail user, I found Facebook Messages to be a painful experience. If you're not a Facebook friend with the sender, your email is diverted to the Other folder instead of the default Messages folder. Facebook explains this routing as follows:

It seems wrong that an email message from your best friend gets sandwiched between a bill and a bank statement. It's not that those other messages aren't important, but one of them is more meaningful. With new Messages, your Inbox will only contain messages from your friends and their friends. All other messages will go into an Other folder where you can look at them separately.

On its face, this sounds completely logical and downright refreshing to have a folder with nothing but messages from friends. The problem, of course, is that quite often, it's the emails from my friends that are of the least importance.

By placing emails from non-Facebook friends in the Other folder, Facebook buries them in the interface. You receive no notice that you have unopened Other messages pending unless you enter the Messages folder -- which is when the Other folder appears. The same is true in the Facebook mobile app -- Other messages do not trigger the little red number alert on my Facebook iPhone app.

The net effect is that emails that the user has requested to receive might go unnoticed, unopened, and unacted upon -- a huge problem if that email bill you received is due immediately.

Facebook's solution is that users can "easily" promote messages from the Other folder to the Messages folder, where you will see them more readily. Of course, this assumed that the user sees the message in the first place. It also assumes that they can find the Move to Messages command, which is buried in the Actions pull-down menu at the top of the screen.

My instinct is that the way Facebook Messages routes email will frustrate users who are used to how Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail work. Facebook has mistakenly assumed that only messages from Facebook friends are of critical importance, but there is a wealth of emails from non-Facebook friends, financial institutions, and business relationships that are often of equal or greater importance.

Once @facebook.com users realize that the Other folder might cause them to miss critical messages that they have requested, I suspect they'll demand changes or keep their email communications outside of Facebook Messages -- and that should allay some email marketing fears.

As evidenced by the Other folder and the Actions pull-down menu, the usability of Facebook Messages -- at least as it relates to inbound emails -- leaves something to be desired. These issues are magnified when you begin sending and receiving more emails.

First, Facebook Messages does not respect or use subject lines. All messages are sorted by sender, and the user does not have the ability to file them in user-generated folders. This is great when all you're sending and receiving are short-burst text-type messages, but it falls apart when you're discussing different subjects over a long period of time.

Here's an example: I'm currently planning a bachelor party for my brother. As a result, I need to email him with some details while separately emailing the groomsmen with other logistics. As the sender, I'd like to be able to group these messages together so I can see the entire conversation about the bachelor party. Facebook Messages, however, doesn't allow me to do this; my messages to my brother are presented in one long thread with all my other correspondence with him, and the messages to the groomsmen are in a separate thread.

A second issue that seems easily correctable is that as soon as you enter the Other folder, Facebook removes the notice that you have unread Other messages -- regardless of whether you've read them or not. Hopefully, this is a fix Facebook will knock out before you finish this article. It is a beta product after all.

A third usability issue has to do with the presentation of email itself. Messages in the Other folder default to text, and the option to turn on the graphics doesn't say something intuitive like "turn on graphics." It says "expand." You also have no ability to turn on the graphics permanently by sender, and when you do "expand," the email appears in a pop-up window with no ability to forward or reply -- two of the most used buttons in any email program.

One of Facebook's stated goals with Facebook Messages is to make messaging more simple. At least with the email portion of the product, it feels like the quest for simplicity led Facebook to abandon some of the most user-friendly aspects of email. The net effect is an email client that pales in comparison to existing competitors and should limit its usage for opt-in email communications.

Humans are inherently creatures of habit. We might say we like change, but deep down, we like most things the way they are.

Every single one of Facebook's 600 million-plus users already has an email address. We know this because Facebook requires an email address to sign up for an account. These users have personal, business, financial, social, and marketing emails already going to these email accounts. In order to switch fully to an @facebook.com address, these folks would have to notify all of their friends and re-subscribe to all of their other emails. That's a lot of work, and it's the reason AOL is still one of the top five webmail clients in use today.

As a result, most folks will likely stay with their current webmail provider rather than switch to an @facebook.com address. This is probably why, at that time of the new Facebook Messages launch, Mark Zuckerberg said, "We don't expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say, 'I'm going to shut down my Yahoo account or my Gmail account and switch exclusively to Facebook.'"

I couldn't agree more. And until that pain to change is outweighed by better -- or at least equivalent -- functionality than the existing webmail providers, email marketers needn't fear a rush of @facebook.com subscribers. In fact, the earliest adopters are probably going to be the ones locking up vanity @facebook.com addresses they couldn't get elsewhere.

The only constant about Facebook
There's an old saying where I'm from in Ohio that if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change. Based on its track record, the same could be said about Facebook. It is definitely a company unafraid of change -- even in the face of loyal user complaints.

Email marketers should take some strange comfort in that track record because, if the past is prologue, Facebook Messages will evolve significantly in the coming weeks, months, and years as more users kick its tires. This might mean that some of the usability issues I've documented will be addressed. It might also mean that the way things work today will not be how they work tomorrow.

As a result, my best advice is to email marketers is to watch and wait. There's simply too little real consumer use today to fully appreciate whether and how Facebook Messages will impact your email marketing efforts.

Facebook needs email
The final reason that email marketers shouldn't worry about the impact of Facebook Messages upon email marketing is that Facebook needs email as much as -- if not more than -- any sender out there today.

Think about what drives you to reengage with Facebook on a daily basis. My guess for most folks is that it's the email notices -- friend requests, event notices, comments -- that you receive in your trusty Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook, or Yahoo Mail accounts. Those emails serve to trigger a visit back to Facebook, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if email was one of the top three referral sources of Facebook traffic.

Assuming that's the case, Facebook execs can speculate all they want that something's going to replace email. The reality is that email is the most widely used digital communication channel today and even Facebook needs the email channel to fuel its growth.

If that ever changes, then there will be something for email marketers to worry about.

Jeff Rohrs is principal of ExactTarget's marketing research and education group.

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