The rise of pinball searches and what it means for SEO

Search behaviors are changing. We now search in a “pinball” pattern. Huh?

Yes, a study by the Nielsen Norman Group shows how much the introduction of Google’s knowledge panels, featured snippets, local rankings and other new elements and the variation of these features are changing searchers’ behavior. The visual weight of search engine results page (SERP) can influence how a user looks at the results.

The study says that since the number of Google features varies from query to query, the gaze pattern is nonlinear. In other words, since today’s search-results pages have many possible complex layouts, users don’t always process search results sequentially and move their attention across the page more than they did in the past.

The rise of the pinball searches and what it means for SEO

Since the modern search engine results page includes different types of results, ads, and interactive elements, users look at the results in a nonlinear fashion. The Nielsen Norman Group has dubbed this phenomenon the “pinball pattern.”

The Pinball Pattern
Source: Nielsen Norman Group

In a pinball pattern, the user scans a search engine results page in a nonlinear path, moving between SERP results and features. Any given search engine query can surface different types of search features, ranging from rich answers to carousels.

This miscellaneous collection of information plays a critical part in shifting the user’s attention across the entire page.

“That means that layout of a SERP can determine which links get visibility and clicks” – Nielsen Norman Group 

Inconsistency of SERPs forces user decisions

Since the search result pages are so inconsistent, users are forced to look at the entire page before digging in and making a selection of what they want to click on and/or read.

In addition, the visual elements also impact the results next to them. This image below from the Nielsen Norman Group demonstrates this decision making process by the user and where they click.

serp fridge annotated resized marked
Source: Nielsen Norman Group

Here is an example of what one participant in the Nielsen Norman Group study did. She was researching how to install a “french drain” in her backyard.

According to the study: “Her search for french drain returned text results, a shopping-results carousel, a knowledge panel, a people-also-ask element, and a video pack. Her gaze followed a pinball pattern — bouncing around as salient visual elements and keywords redirected her attention.”

gazeplot google serp frenchdrain p marked
Source: Nielsen Norman Group

So what does the rise of pinball searchers mean for marketers and SEO?

In the old days of search engine optimization (SEO), it was all about being first. First as in the first result.

Times have changed.

Google is encouraging a wider distribution of clicks and to encourage users to look further down the result pages. In 2019, the first result receives 28% of clicks while back in 2006 it received 51% of clicks. Google learns a lot about how a user searches. Google wants to give each searcher answers to their question(s) as soon as possible.

The power of Google searcher task accomplishment

Google has one goal: searcher task accomplishment.

Google searcher task accomplishment
Google searcher task accomplishment

What is search task accomplishment? Google wants to answer their searchers’ questions quickly. So they reward websites who quickly help the needs of those searchers.

Google is making an effort to go above and beyond to address a searcher’s initial question and then they try to think ahead for the searches with what questions may come next. They are using their historical data to help searchers answer their questions quicker. Google now uses machine learning for its search algorithms so it can better understand web pages, how useful the web page is to users, and how quickly it can answer the questions its users want to know.

Conclusions from the pinball study

Since search results pages are more complex today and have more visually attractive elements, users are drawn to those visual elements since process visuals 60,000 times faster than the written word. In other words, it is important to optimize your images as much as your text when it comes to SEO.  One of the quickest ways to help you optimize your images is to use free websites that have high-quality photos that are not copyrighted.

It is now important to be in the top 5 positions of a SERP with the Nielsen Norman Group study reporting that if you do that: “you’ll have a good chance (40–80%) of getting a valuable glance from your user.”

This chart from Nielsen Norman Group below shows that if you appear near the top, you may have around a 10–20% chance of getting a click with the first position received 19% of all looks and 28% of all clicks.

distributionoflooksandclicks x
Source: Nielsen Norman Group

The study also concludes that “it’s still important to appear within the first page of results, since people still aren’t likely to click through to the second page.”

The bottom line: the more things change, the more they stay the same for SEO

The secret of SEO is to answer the questions of your target audience. Answer questions thoroughly will impress Google, sending more website traffic your way.

It is that simple. Find out what your audience wants, what they are searching for, and how you can help them. And then answer their questions with your content. Even though our search patterns are changing, the fundamentals of good search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing, and digital marketing have not.