Eye Tracking Research, All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Eye Spy
Knowing and understanding how consumers interact with your website is valuable information that can be obtained by looking over their shoulder. This approach is creepy and tedious. Instead, you could utilize eye tracking studies, but they can’t tell you the whole story. Read on for coverage from the Eye Tracking Research Update session at Search Engine Strategies New York, where industry experts sung the praises of eye tracking with equal criticism.

The luminous Anne Kennedy, Founder & MP of Beyond Ink, FP & CMO Joblr.net, not to mention SES Advisory Board member, moderated the panel of authorities on Eye Tracking Research consisting of Shari Thurow, Founder & SEO Director of Omni Marketing Interactive, Jeremi Karnell, Co-Founder and President of One to One Interactive and Susan Weinschenk, Chief of User Experience Strategy at Human Factors International.

First to speak was Shari Thurow. She addressed eye tracking in relation to search engines as well as its weaknesses.


Next was Karnell who started his presentation with a question: “What is this?”

It’s the fleur de lis, but as a symbol it represents many different things to different people:

  • French monarchy
  • The Saints football team (I don’t know about you, but that’s what I said… )
  • Boy Scouts
  • Chevy Corvette, etc…

Symbols mean a lot of things and people have instinctual reactions to them. This is exactly why brands use them.

One to One Insights developed a study for eye tracking, here Karnell revealed the objectives, study, insights and their conclusions.


  1. Determine user behavior and engagement with SERPs vs. text only.
  2. Asses impact.
  3. Identify potential impacts on SEM campaigns.
  4. Gather preliminary data to form a larger study.


  1. Recruited 17 subjects who wanted to change their cable provider.
  2. Established 10 keyword sets- six branded, four unbranded.
  3. Created four SERPs for each keyword = 40 permutations.
  4. Created natural, natural with paid, universal, universal with paid.
  5. Collected eye tracking.
  6. Distributed two surveys (Geneva Emotion Wheel & Likert Ranking Scale).
  7. Asked: ?What link would you click first? Second?”

Universal SERPs that included mixed results

  • Video was typically fixated on before the first natural and right paid links (17%)
  • Video links received more clicks than top pd link
  • Image links receive more fist fixations

Universal SERPs and the Golden Triangle

  • With text only: F pattern.
  • Many scrolled below fold.
  • Universal Search = golden triangle. Visual density stayed at the top.
  • Video and image results increase engagement on SERPs.
  • Universal only and universal with paid had significantly higher levels of engagement.
  • People believe images and engage as a result.


  1. Creating a holistic stat that considers all search interaction will create competitive advantage and drive more engaged visits through SEM activities.
  2. Understanding your brand does have an impact on search environment.
  3. Think about how your digital assets can be leveraged. Be sure to use appropriate tagging.

Weinschenk, the brain lady, spoke about the psychological implications one must take into consideration when using eye tracking studies.

Humans have an estimated 40 million sensory inputs coming into our brains every second! Wowza!

BUT, we are only consciously aware of up to 40. Most sensory processing is happening unconsciously.

Three Parts of Brain

  • New brain (Conscious)
  • Mid brain (Process emotions & visual info process)
  • Old brain (Instincts. Our animal instincts are constantly scanning environment asking: Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Will it kill me?)

How can we get at the old mind?

7 Eye Tracking Traps to Avoid:

1. Underestimating the effect of what you ask people to do on where they look.

  • Be careful what you’re asking them. Look for this/that/the other thing … or just let them do it on their own
  • i.e.: the Yarbus Visitor Study

2. Assuming that where people are looking is what they are paying attention to.

  • New research by Larson 2009: tested peripheral vision vs. central vision. Eye tracking uses central, but peripheral is very important (which is why anything blinking is annoying). The theory is that this is from our evolution
  • The study showed deteriorated images of rooms. If it was deteriorated in the center, people could still identify the room. If it was deteriorated in the peripheral people could not identify the room
  • Conclusion: periphery is important!

3. Underestimating the effects your protocol.

  • If the test subject is sitting too close to screen or too far back, this will throw off data.
  • These studies must be  exacting!

4. Underestimating time needed to analyze data. Analysis paralysis :).

  • You get a LOT of data (yuck!)

5. Underestimating time/cost to perform the study.

6. Overwhelming client with the data.

7. Neglecting to draw useful, meaningful decisions and actions from the study.

“You can use all the quantitative data you can get, but you still have to distrust it and use your own intelligence and judgment” –Alvin Toffler

There you have it, a nice piece of heat map meat, just take it with a grain of salt.

photo credit: jennaddenda

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