The Pinball Pattern and the evolution of search

Search engine Google

In the last few years, search has seen drastic change. Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) have evolved at a rate we’ve never seen before.

There has been so much change that, today, in some cases, it’s no longer necessary, and some would even argue, undesirable, to rank top in the search results.

This is big news, and if you had said this a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable.

There are algorithmic reasons behind these changes, zero-click searches and most notably, Google’s removal of the ‘double’ listing for sites that generate a Featured Snippet.  

However, not all of these changes are purely algorithmic. 

Search itself has changed, and more importantly, the way in which people search has changed.

Searchers are now demanding more complex, localised results for more conversational queries.

And these results are being presented using an assortment of different visual elements – video, images, featured snippets, maps, news, local results and various ‘Rich Results’.

These changes have been dramatic and quick. Rich answers in Google mobile search have more than doubled since 2018.

These new features have opened up new opportunities. We must look at search in a different way and consider what strategies we can deploy in order to increase visibility and conversion rates.

These complex search results have changed the way we relate to them. People no longer process information sequentially and in a normal fashion. The days of being offered 10 blue links on our desktop are over. 

Google search results for microsoft old results

The Pinball Pattern

There have been some interesting usability studies published in recent years, one of which comes from the Nielsen Norman Group. They wanted to see how these new search features affected peoples’ attention. 

The Nielsen Norman Group has been carrying out regular UX studies for many years now, the first one dating back to 1997. 

In their early research – before the new search evolution that we speak about above –  Nielsen found that people scan SERPs sequentially in 59 percent of cases. They did so without skipping any results or looking at the right side of the page. 

Today, however, things are more complicated.

People’s attention has shifted.

It’s no longer linear and predictable. Eye Tracking studies all point to peoples’ attention bouncing around between different sections and elements on a page.

The richer and more visual the elements, the more pronounced this ‘bouncing’ is. 

The Nielson Norman Group identified this search behaviour as the Pinball Pattern. In short, the Pinball Pattern describes the way that a searcher looks over the SERPs on Google (or other search engines).

With featured snippets, ads and, in some cases, video and visual media appearing on Google, sequential scanning of the SERPs is now defunct, users now glance around the screen in no particular order.

This is similar to the way we’ve seen users consume on-page copy and the importance of writing scannable content.

Ranking as the top position on Google (while still important) is no longer the only thing that matters.

Let’s look at the research

The Nielsen Group analyzed 471 different search queries from four usability-testing studies conducted between 2016 and 2018. The studies used a combination of eye-tracking and usability testing and tested a broad range of tasks. 

Participants weren’t told what to search for or how to search. This flexibility echoes what we see in search today, with an increasing number of people turning to search for general tasks, and using more conversational queries.

What did The Nielsen Group find?

The first discovery was that the participants gaze patterns were not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements on the SERPs affected the visibility of the organic results near them.

Another discovery was that users spend an average of 5.7 seconds considering the results before they made their first selection and that when SERP features like feature snippets were present, they received glances in 74 per cent of cases.

Overall, the way in which results were presented plays a vital role in a user’s attention.

What can we take away from this?

Organic results are more complex than they used to be.

With peoples’ shifting attention comes more opportunities to gain visibility. You no longer need to rank in the top positions to have visibility.

In 2006, the first result on any given search received 51 per cent of clicks. Neilsen found that the first result now receives only 28 per cent of clicks. That’s a drop by almost half. This is a dramatic shift in user behaviour.

Ultimately, so long as you are appearing within the first five results on Google, you have a 10-20 per cent chance of getting a click, and a 40-80 per cent chance of getting a glance.

Why does this matter? 

As search results get richer, so do peoples’ possibilities of appearing in them. Marketing has moved beyond the traditional blue link, and search today is intuitive and intent-driven. People expect answers and expect these answers to be presented in a variety of ways.

As such, it’s now more important than ever to consider all search verticals, including video, pictures, rich snippets, and Google My Business, to name a few.

As Danny Sullivan from Google’s search liaison team recently tweeted –

Ignoring listings that appear in Top Stories, businessess in local, programs in college displays feels like a dated assessment of how search works….

We also need to be flexible and to continually examine the search landscape we work in. For example, how are searchers intentions being met in your niche? And how does the SERP landscape look?

The way we search will continue to evolve, as will information presentation on the SERPs. We need to make sure we’re ahead of the curve, and begin optimising for these things today, rather than further down the road.

Although the world of SEO in 2020 is bright and exciting, it will require a more intelligent strategy and continual, iterative optimisation, more so than ever before.

About John Kramer

My name is John Kramer, and I am a Malaga-based SEO fanatic. Marketing is my passion. With over 15 years of experience in digital, I am constantly energised by the ever-changing landscape of search. A seasoned marketer with a passion for helping small and mid-sized businesses succeed in the digital age. Proud father, husband, and outdoor enthusiast.