The Importance of being #1

Source Title:
The Power of Defaults
Story Text:

Jakob Nielsen comments on a recent study of click through data [pdf] with his post "The Power of Default Values". There's nothing too shocking in the study's findings, but it does provide a little food for thought.

The found that 42% of users clicked the #1 result on SERP's, and only 8% clicked on the #2 result. More importantly though, when the top two results were secretly switched, 34% of users still clicked the top result, and 12% clicked the #2 listing.

This study goes far to address why users tend to click on the top hit. There are two plausible explanations:

  • Search engines are so good at judging relevancy that they almost always place the best hit on top.
  • Users click the top hit not because it's any better, but simply because it's first. This might be due to sheer laziness (after all, you start from the top) or because users assume the search engine places the best hit on top, whether that's actually true or not.

As the study shows, the answer is clearly a little of both.

And on a lighter note, they tested relevancy (yes, we know that's virtually impossible...) and found the following:

On average, the top hit in the original search listings was judged as being the most relevant 36% of the time; the second hit was most relevant 24% of the time; and the two hits were equally relevant 40% of the time. In other words, the search engine tended to be right, but was wrong one-fourth of the time. (If the two hits are equally relevant, it doesn't matter which one is placed on top, so I counted these as being right.)

Given how often the search engine was wrong, users clicked the top hit far too frequently. And when the two top hits were swapped, too few users changed their behavior. In other words, we can conclude that there is a strong bias in favor of clicking the top link, though not so strong that link quality is irrelevant.


I hate to argue...

Hate to argue with quality research, but 42% is a bit high based on what we've been tracking. Maybe they also noticed that the bounce rate is higher when you're #1 than it is at #2. Probably not.

More figures

From Usability Week 2004, so it's Jacob Nielsens own research. The study had 69 participants - they were in a testing situation and not in their usual surroundings, and they were given specific tasks to solve:

51% clicked #1
16% clicked #2

81% entered one word only
14% entered two words

83% only tried that one query
12% changed it one time

38% visited zero sites from the SERPS
50% visited just one site

This is one specific study only, so dont' take "51%" as "51%". (In general, never do that, regardless of who made the survey). If you want to translate the sample to the general population it's probably safe to say "between 40 and 60 percent", that's just the level of uncertainty on these things. So the numbers are perfectly well aligned with this more recent study, the latter being in the low end, and this one a bit higher, but it's still "the same thing, only different".

Forgot to say

... that the numbers I posted show that it's not just about being #1. There's a cople of other things in the mix, as

1) The "average user" has lousy search skills
2) They won't search specific (that is, they probably think they do...)
3) They won't change the query if it doesn't produce intended results
4) They most likely hit #1 out of habit, and then
5) They quit. Give up. Forget about it.

That's much worse than the first study suggests. Unless you're the one at #1 of course, but think about it - people like that, do they convert well? Are they the ones you would really like to target?

So, being #1 might get you more traffic, but my best guess is that your traffic will convert better if you're not (beause then the people who will find you will be a whole lot more motivated -- or better skilled in using search). Still, the difference in sheer volume might make this a moot point, as if you get double or triple the amount of visitors you can still earn more money at a lower conversion rate.

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