Search Engine User Psychology

Any blogger can attest that they routinely receive visits owing to rather bizarre and improbable search engine referrals. Jakob Nielsen looks at recent studies of search engine user click-through patterns and has some interesting observations.

The Power of Default Values

How gullible are Web users? Sadly, the answer seems to be “very.”

Professor Thorsten Joachims and colleagues at Cornell University conducted a study of search engines. Among other things, their study examined the links users followed on the SERP (search engine results page). They found that 42% of users clicked the top search hit, and 8% of users clicked the second hit. So far, no news. Many previous studies, including my own, have shown that the top few entries in search listings get the preponderance of clicks and that the number one hit gets vastly more clicks than anything else.

What is interesting is the researchers’ second test, wherein they secretly fed the search results through a script before displaying them to users. This script swapped the order of the top two search hits. In other words, what was originally the number two entry in the search engine’s prioritization ended up on top, and the top entry was relegated to second place.

In this swapped condition, users still clicked on the top entry 34% of the time and on the second hit 12% of the time.

Nielson’s analysis of the data seems reasonable enough: Users are lazy, too trusting of the search engines’ ability to sort properly, but do in fact make some rational calculations.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. That is very interesting reading. It is funny to me because when I am shopping or doing research I almost never click on the first link (unless it is obviously the best site for me) or three – I figure those are just the sites with the best SEO or best links and I am usually looking for either a bargain or something off the beaten path. I always take a gander at the top ones, but generally make my picks from farther down the page or even the second page. For fun I like to randomly pick like page 8 of Google results to see who is out there and might deserve some attention. I guess that is the small-business owner in me looking out for my own. LOL

  2. Kent says:

    The stuff I search for is sometimes esoteric, but it’s still amazing how often I have to go to the fourth or fifth entry before I find something that is useful. I can’t explain it.