How we scan search results

It’s mornings like this that I feel 100% connected to my Hampshire College undergrad education. Back in 1994, the “build a website class” on my schedule was in the same department as the cognitive science folks who were focused on how the brain understands and comprehends the world around it.

I think doing online marketing without an understanding of cognitive psychology is foolish. It’s important to understand that cognitively, we are matching the shape of our keyword phrase with the shapes that appear in the search results.

Here are the details as presented by Equiro about how our brains process a search page:

Once we have run a search query, the prefrontal cortex begins to idle down, and the next exercise (selecting a search result to click on) is handled by the brain as a simple matching game. We have the label, or query in our mind. We scan the page in the path we’ve been conditioned to believe will lead to the best results. This is starting in the upper left, and then moving down the page in a F shaped scan pattern. All we want to do is find a match between the query in our prefrontal cortex and the results on the page.

Here the brain also conserves cognitive processing energy by breaking the page into chunks of 3 or 4 results. This is due to the channel capacity of our working memory and how many discrete chunks of information we can process in our prefrontal cortex at a time. We scan the results looking first for the query, usually in the title of the results. And it’s here where I believe a very important cognitive switch is thrown.

When we structure the query, we type it into a box. In the process, we remember the actual shape of the phrase. When we first scan results, we’re not reading words, we’re matching shapes. In cognitive psychology, this is called the “pop out” effect. We can recognize shapes much faster than we can read words. The shapes of our query literally “pop out” from the page as a first step towards matching relevance. The effect is enhanced by query (or hit) bolding. This matching game is done at the sub cortical level.

If the match is positive (shape = query) then our eye lingers long enough to start picking up the detail around the word. We’ve seen in multiple eye tracking studies that foveal focus (the center of the field of vision) tends to hit the query in the title, but peripheral vision begins to pick up words surrounding the title.

It’s after the “pop out” match that the prefrontal cortex again kicks into gear. As addition words are picked up, they are used to reinforce the original scent cue. Additional words from the result pull concepts into the prefrontal cortex (recognized URL, feature, supporting information, price, brand), which tend to engage different cortical regions as long term memory labels are paged and brought back into the working memory.

If enough matches with the original mental construct of the information sought are registered, the link is clicked.

Now if you add the concept of “shape matching” to the fact that many internet searchers are simultaneously watching TV or absorbing other media you begin to realize that the amount of focus a searcher has on the search results is very limited.

Do you still think that Internet searchers are READING your search result? Or that it’s going to be effective to have a result that isn’t finally tuned to your audience’s keywords?

In the online scanning environment, shapes and details matter….


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