Video Thumbnails In Universal Search – Google Confirms They Work

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Last week, on the official Google Blog, they revealed a new set of eye-tracking studies that confirm what many have concluded already.  In particular, that video results shown with thumbnails in Google’s universal search results do do NOT distract significantly from the user’s experience and actually DO help to “make it easier” for users to find results.

Below is the first video released by Google that shows an example of an eye-tracking study, in real-time on a universal search results page for the infamous example query, “How to tie a tie”:

What is Eye-Tracking?  The Basics

Although it is evident that Google has been tracking this for some time, this is the first time that they have actually shared eye-tracking results with the public.  Eye-tracking works by identifying how users are scanning a results page with their eyes, where they are looking, and the duration with which the eyes scan the page and focus on a particular result set.  For the most part, users tend to quickly scan a results page in order from the top down the list until they discover a particular result and click on it, visit the next page, or redefine their search query.  Google uses this technology as one tool in their arsenal to measure user satisfaction with regard to their UI for the SERPS as well as many other Google products.

“Our User Experience Research team has found that people evaluate the search results page so quickly that they make most of their decisions unconsciously. To help us get some insight into this split-second decision-making process, we use eye-tracking equipment in our usability labs. This lets us see how our study participants scan the search results page, and is the next best thing to actually being able to read their minds.”

Dont worry though, they cant read our minds, yet ;-)

You have probably all seen examples of eye-tracking studies and heatmaps (summary view of many eye-tracking results) done on Google results pages.  The example below shows a heatmap of the activity of 34 usability study participants on a typical organic search results page from Google.  The darker the color, the more time the users spent on that particular portion of the page.  And as Google likes to see (and so do us SEO pros)

Eye-Tracking with Universal Search Results Pages & Thumbnails

Google presents the infamous “How to Tie a Tie” universal search results example in their blog post.

With regard to universal search and the thumbnails in particular, Google was specifically interested in whether or not the thumbnails were presenting a distraction in terms of getting users to the most relevant result, in the shortest amount of time.

google video thumbnailsThrougout 2008, we saw google test various formats for the display of universal search results in the search results pages (SERPS).  In Sept., they seemed to settle upon a universal one-box display of 2 videos horizontally placed which was much more subtle of an implementaion than earlier in the year where you could discover a page with more than half of the results containing video thumbnails.

“It appears that Google has adjusted the interface for video results that are part of universal search and are now promoting only two videos in the first 10 results if the search query is strongly associated with relevant video results.” – ReelSEO – 9/30/2008

At the time, it was clear to us that they were testing different layouts to determine a fine balance between promoting universal search results sets, and providing relevant and valuable results in a timely matter, with little distraction.

“we were concerned that the thumbnail images might be distracting and disrupt the well-established order of result evaluation.”

A a result of the newly released eye-tracking studies where Google compared how users scan the SERPS both with and without thumbnail images, Google confirmed that the presence of the thumbnails did NOT strongly affect the order of scanning results (we’ve seen other heatmaps tell a different story).  Google stated that in fact, the thumbnails provided helpful information without getting in the way of the user’s primary task: finding relevant information.   Additionally, Google stated that the thumbnail images seem to make results with thumbnails easy to notice when the users wanted them and easy to skip when users didn’t.

To illustrate this further, Google provided the following screenshot examples:

1) In this first example, the user is searching for “an inconveinent truth” which is a movie.  In the left, you can see that the user had a hard time finding the a result.  In the right, which contains a thumnail for the video preview, you can see that very quickly the user found the result they were probably looking for.


2)  A search for the keyword “bees” show that users seemed to skip over the thumbnail on the right hand side.  The assumption made here is that the user searching for the keyword “bees” in this example is probably looking for some general information about bees.  The thumbnail is of a for a news result about the animated movie “bees” and the users seemed to skip over the thumbnail and more quickly eliminate results that did not meet their desired result.

universal search eyetracking

What Does This Mean For Online Video Marketers?

Well, this article is long enough and I think the conclusion is obvious.  However, here it is.

  1. Universal Search will not be going away any time soon.
  2. Learn how to leverage Video SEO, as well as other forms of SEO (news, images, etc…) in order to rank and garner exposure with thumbnails in search.


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