Search Engine Land
pointed me to an interesting study
on user behavior vis-a-vis Google search results. The study asked 22 Cornell students to use Google to research 10 pre-defined questions such as "find the homepage of Michael Jordan, the statistician." Users were given the questions, but were not told what queries to use/ make.
The study tracked the user's interaction with the Google results, both active (i.e. clicks) and passive (i.e. eye-tracking) and the results were pretty interesting. It turns out that where a result was ranked by Google was actually the most valued "feature" of a search result, even more important than the relevance of the accompanying snippet. In other words, even if a particular search result included a snippet that was more "relevant" to the user's specific query, it didn't matter. Users are more apt to click on the higher ranked results, regardless of the relevance of the snippet.
I guess one interpretation of this study could be that users trust the Google algorithm more than they trust themselves/ what they see. If true, that would be a real testament to the Google brand. Most of the time in "taste tests" branded products are preferable to non-branded products. That's the power of brands in general. But this would actually have a brand not only trumping a competitor, but the consumers judgement itself. Pretty interesting.
But maybe its something else. The study notes at its beginning that it limited users to using Google for its research. But what if they didn't? What if Yahoo, MSN, Ask, etc. were brought into the equation. Would the results of the study be the same? My guess is yes. If so, what would that tell us then?
In my mind it is further evidence that the standards for search results are set. Users have an expectation of how search results are going to be presented and place value in that presentation. It's not that they trust what Google is telling them is the most relevant result vs. what another brand would say, its that the standard for search result is a ranked list with the most relevant being higher up. The content of that list will presumably vary from brand to brand, and ultimately lead to the consumers search engine of choice, but the presentation is now a standard.
So two questions: (i) if you are competing in the search world, is it possible to differentiate your product through presentation? and (ii) if your product is this does it stand a chance?