Category Archives: User behaviour

3 ways search engines can track your behaviour

Search engines are keyword-led utility tools used to locate information on the web. Most search engines commonly record your behaviour. Some behaviours are commonly known, for example your search history, and some are less known, for instance, tagging your search engine queries. Either way most search engines record user actions to predict user intent within search sessions and, therefore, calculating what information you are going to search for in the near future.

A photo of a mouse cursor

Questionable click? No copyright permission required.

3 levels of search engine user tracking

  1. User actions can be tracked by search engines, for example, query logs, clicks and scoring. By analysing keywords with each of these user actions, search engines can further add value to this data. Query logs can also include subject categories, time spent on individual webpages and calculating what a searcher’s most favourite category is. This is likely to be constructed on a 3D cube with 3 dimensions: length, breath, and depth.
  2. Hidden user actions are tracked in a technical manner, such as, using AJAX or javascript. Hidden search engine actions include mouse movements or, for example, scrolling. Such tracking requires third party techniques because search engine instruments cannot record such data in their own right.
  3. Popular search engines now carry out regular user testing whereby Google, Bing and Yahoo, for example, get participants to sit in front of their search engine and complete eye tracking (the third way search engines track behaviour). These observed actions are much more sophisticated and are often incorporated with wider IT diciplines, such as, usability testing, for instance.

Tracking your behaviour, your rights

There is no international law that covers search engine tracking, however, the laws in your home country will help to protect you against legal concerns, for instance, privacy, data protection and breach of confidence. The biggest issue with search engine tracking is that we do not, as of yet, know precisely what search engines use to track our behaviour. In their response search engines are likely to argue that their tracking helps to increase personalisation and by withholding such methods they are giving away less information to their competitors. Although from a search perspective personalisation is positive, since relevancy of results is increased, public awareness is likely to challenge such behaviour tactics which is why search engines should consider opening up to transparency more and more as time progresses.

What are your opinions? Were you aware of the 3 layers of search engine tracking? Tweet Gerald.

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How do we carry out a web search?

Keywords are fundamental to web search engines because keyword searching is required for all search engines.

Four ways in which we browse*

Electronic search
We search electronic resources, such as, catalogs, magazines or websites, for instance, in order to find information that meets our information need.
Physical search
In order to find something out we look up physical resources, for example, books or leaflets.
Serendipity browsing
Traditionally speaking serendipity browsing refers to finding information within a library. The idea, which can be applied to the whole web today, is that if you know one item is good then you can find similar items based on this original item. So “related searches” or “similar items” are modern web search engine examples of serendipity browsing.
Information task switch
This involves a searcher switching between electronic and physical resources to find information. For example, reading a book and using a web search engine to find out more about a topic you have just read.

*Adapted from (Spink 2003:344) who also found that we are likely to carry out many searches within one search. Carrying out an actual web search is not just a simple and quick task because it is comprised of several quick-fire queries.

Popular web search engines

Popular web search engines. Source.

Why do we browse and ask for more information?

There are several ‘triggers‘ which make us want to find out more information. The first is breaking a search down into tasks, for example, find out if it is BBQ weather at the weekend (task one) then asking a navigational query for “Tesco” to buy things for a BBQ (task two). Secondly, whenever we search and we read something interesting this triggers another search task. Thirdly, if our search results have something unexplained within them then we need to change our search to find this information out. Fourthly, and finally, if there is something missing from our overall search plan then this triggers a need to fill in this missing gap.

Digital marketing and search

Search engines allow your website to be found but you have a very short window in which to grab attention. Designing smart, clear and usable technologies will help make this browser find information or, even better, convert.

Do you ask for numerous search queries within one search? Tweet Gerald.

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  • Day, V.L. and Jeffries, R. (1993) Orienteering in an Information Landscape: How Information Seekers Get From Here to There. Interchi ’93. [issue, volume and page numbers missing]
  • Spink, A. (2003) Multitasking information behavior and information task switching: an exploratory study. Journal of Documentation. 69(1) pp. 336 — 351.

How do we search for web information?

Several eye tracking studies found how we search through keywords. Higher positioned results are also the only results likely to be reviewed by most users. Along with the design and user interface the position of results heavily influences what we click and do not click.

Ranking of results matters

Some eye tracking studies seem to find that searchers concentrate on the top results and, mostly, ignore lower ranked websites. So the position of your website / result on search engines, for example being in the top four position on Bing or Google, does matter because the top results are the only results likely to be reviewed by the searcher.

A photo of a person searching for information.

Person searching for information. Source.

Search engines find information

One study found that users of search engines were likely to use Yahoo!, Bing and Google first for medical information rather than searching on specialised search engines. General and popular search engines are worth concentrating on because your highly ranked website on Bing, Google and Yahoo! is more likely to get more visitors. But it is also worth noting that less popular search engines, in particular Bing, get higher conversation rates for PPC compared to Google. So search engines themselves heavily influence user interactions because the design and user interface is different for every search engine.

Evaluating results

Other eye tracking studies found that relevant results are read from top to bottom (i.e. position one followed by position two and three etc). If the top results were irrelevant searchers were likely to review more hits. Bad searches means bad results which results in the searcher reviewing more results until they find a relevant hit.

A good search experience goes hand-in-hand with an appropriate choice of keywords. So it is not just about getting your website to rank high but to also allow people to find your website for a range of keywords. It is also worth noting that eye tracking studies are not frequently employed because they are tedious, requiring extensive data, and they can be too narrow to generalise. However, eye tracking studies allow user behaviour to be better understood.

What way do we search for information?

We tend to focus on the top, usually the first four, results. If these results are irrelevant then we are likely to review more results. Ranked results means that we read top-down rather than bottom-up. Furthermore, choosing a website at a random position is unlikely to occur due to this user behaviour.

Posted by Gerald Murphy


  1. Bing. (no date) Bing Ads Drives Higher Conversion Rates and Lower CPAs for Agency Clients. [Online] [Accessed on 09th August 2013]
  2. Goldberg, J.H. Stimson, M.J. Lewenstein, M. Scott, N. and Wichansky, A.M. (2002) Eye Tracking in Web Search Tasks: Design Implications.
  3. Granka, L. Joachims, T. Gay, G. (2004) Eye-tracking analysis of user behaviour in WWW search. In Proceedings of the 27th Annual ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval. SIGIR ’04. ACM. New York: NY. pp. 478 — 479
  4. Guan, Z. and Cutrell, E. (2007) An eye tracking study of the effect of target rank of Web search. In CIII 2007, ACM. New York: NY. pp. 407 — 416
  5. Lorigo, L. et al. (2008) Eye tracking and online search: Lessons learned and challenges ahead. Journal of Americian Society of Information Science Technology. 59(7) pp. 1041 — 1052

Google results: Which position is better?

Is page one better than page two?

Goodwin analysed Optify’s study to find out what search engine position was clicked on the most in 2011. Lee did a similar study in 2013. Although both studies suggest that being first on Google has a significant advantage over other positions the average searcher looks at the top three results. The table below shows the click-through rate of results from position one to ten from 2011 and 2013. Other than what the click-through rates are for the top ten results there were two additional interesting findings:

  • Goodwin found that being first on page two of Google has a slight advantage over a result that was position ten on page one.
  • Lee found that page one on Google obtains 92 per cent of all traffic whereas page two views drop to 4.8 per cent.
Table showing the affect of ranking and clicks

Table showing the affect of ranking and clicks

Pay Per Click (PPC)

PPC works by buying sponsored adverts on a search engine. The keywords you buy are matched to specific user queries for a specified period of time. PPC’s contextual adverts improve user satisfaction, which is why most web search engines match adverts to specific keywords through their unique PPC package, and are the main funding source for most search engines today. PPC adverts are also likely to be seen by the searcher but not clicked on.

Heatmap showing tops results matter.

Heatmap showing tops results matter. Source.

Future of PPC

Popularity of PPC might decrease because more users will make use of ad blocking software which means they bypass the entire PPC system. Currently three million user’s have installed AdBlock Plus on their devices within the past 30 days. It seems that the entire PPC system might need to be reviewed to keep up with other technological advances.

If you have found this post interesting read the full studies by using the links below. If you would like to get involved feel free to tweet Gerald.

Posted by Gerald Murphy


  1. Firefox. (2013) Statistics for Adblock Plus. [Online] [Accessed on 24th July 2013]
  2. Goodwin, D. (2011) Top Google Result Gets 36.4% of Clicks [Study]. [Online] [Accessed on 21st July 2013]
  3. Lee, J. (2013) No. 1 Position in Google Gets 33% of Search Traffic [Study]. [Online] [Accessed on 21st July 2013]
  4. Richardson, M. Dominowska, E. Ragno, R. (2007) Predicting clicks: estimating the click-through rate for new ads. WWW 2007 / Track: Search. pp. 521 — 530

Online reading habits and user behaviour

Online and offline media are different in format but does this affect reading behaviours or make any other differences?

Reading habits and user behaviour

Digital, unlike printed, media is more likely to be read for a greater length of time. This is important to know because organisations should consider saving money from printing expensive magazines and opt for a blog which could be read for a longer duration. This same study also identified that magazine & newspaper, entertainment and blogs were the most popular areas of personal browsers. This suggests that users search for personal information. This knowledge allows us to understand that search is a very personal experience.

Photo showing how our brains have been rewired due to technology advances.

Photo showing how our brains have been rewired due to technology advances. Source: IdRatherBeWritin

Advances in technology has also meant that we, the consumers of technology, have changed with use. Johnson’s unscientific work argues that our brains have been rewired. Online reading habits are more likely to attract more readers. Does this prove that our brains have been rewired to read more online?

Traditional vs digital media

What is the advantage of having a digital media? Online media is advantageous since it allows you to get a higher level of concentration, as well as, attracting a greater number of readers. Online user’s also have the advantage of accessing your website 24/7 for free. It is also important to know the impact of digital technology.

Combining this article’s findings with are hyperlinks good or bad post allows us to design smarter digital technologies. How can I increase my conversation rate? Part of the answer is quite simple: maintain a high concentration level, by not using too many hyperlinks, and create digital technologies with well thought out user journeys which help navigate happy, engaged users. Clever and good designs, in addition, make us happy.

Why should I create a blog?

  • Regularly updated content helps create “fresh” content
  • Blogs are easy to set up
  • You can become an excellent resource for your neich market
  • Blogs have a higher concentration span which could lead to a engaged target audience

Posted by Gerald Murphy


  1. Norman, D. (2009) The 3 ways good design makes us happy.
  2. Johnson, T. (no date) Less Text, Please: Contemporary Reading Behaviors and Short Formats
  3. Mohamed, M. Rahman, R.A. Tin, L.C. Hashim, H. Maarof, H. Nasir, N.S.M. Zailani, S.N. Esivan, S.M.M. and Jumari, N.F. (2011) Reading behaviours of students in Kolej Datin Seri Endon (KDSE). International Journal of Educational Management. 26(4) pp. 381 — 390
  4. Songhui, Z. (2008) The influence of traditional reading habits on the construction of digital libraries in developing countries. The Electronic Library. 26(4) pp. 520 — 529

Are hyperlinks good or bad?

Hyperlinks, websites and users

On the whole hyperlinks help a user to navigate from page-a to page-b but if there are too many links on a page it can cause a lower attention span causing users to jump around. Hyperlinks, from a web accessibility viewpoint, take a blind user longer to view a webpage because screen readers will read aloud the actual text, as well as, metadata within those hyperlinks. So limiting the number of hyperlinks on a website is very important for everyone.

Simplified photo showing that hyperlinks are complex.

Simplified photo showing that hyperlinks are complex. From: FastCodesign

What to include in a hyperlink?

Having full hyperlink data is very important, and good practice, so everyone can benefit. All hyperlinks should make use of metadata (e.g. alt=”…”, title=”…”). Write call to actions rather that “click here”. Check that your hyperlinks are not broken, the most common reason for changing a hyperlink, and remember to be informative when writing links.

W3C have a good example of a good call to action hyperlink.

Hyperlinks, SEO and rel=”nofollow”

Hyperlinks are important for ranking because links count as votes, if you like, which allows a search engine to know whether or not a website is a good quality website. It is highly unlikely that website-a will link to website-b if they did not like the content. But it is possible that a poor website may have an excellent image. In this case you should consider using the rel=”nofollow” command just before the title=”…” tag. The rel=”nofollow” tells search engines not to go onto that link; thus this link will not be counted as a vote. So all links, strictly speaking, do not boost a website’s ranking.

There is lots of detailed information on hyperlinks online, for instance rel=”me”, if want to find out more after reading this post. Is there anything you would like clarification on? Do you have good examples of hyperlinks you would like to share? E-mail or tweet Gerald.

Posted by Gerald Murphy


  1. Gunter, S.K. and Valade, J. (2008) Master Visually. Canada: Wiley Publishing Inc.
  2. Mohamed, M. Rahman, R.A. Tin, L.C. Hashim, H. Maarof, H. Nasir, N.S.M. Zailani, S.N. Esivan, S.M.M. and Jumari, N.F. (2011) Reading behaviours of students in Kolej Datin Seri Endon (KDSE). International Journal of Educational Management. 26(4) pp. 381 — 390
  3. W3C. (no date) [Online] Don’t use “click here” as link text

Does age matter when searching?

Young people’s search behaviour *

The seven behaviours below show the different types of behaviour of young searchers:

Age seems to play a large factor in the searcher’s use of advanced search features. Children, compared to adolescents, know less advanced search features whereas computer literate adults are more likely to know more advanced searches than younger computer literate users.
‘…limited knowledge of search tools, and display unplanned search paths, as they are unable to verbalize their search process when asked and often have varied approaches to solve a single task.’
Links will be shared on social media because social searcher’s use social networks to communicate with peers.
These searchers are focused on a specific topic of interest. So there is a suggestion that young searchers know what they want and this thing [topic] is all they want to specifically find.
Rules influence any search. Rule-bound searchers are also likely to verbalise their search process. Trust, as an example of a rule, means that searchers are more likely to revisit a specific website many times because the searcher feels they can trust a website.
Pictures and videos are more likely to be used to find information. Visual searchers are also likely to be influenced by other people, for instance, siblings or peers.
Searching or computer use is not chosen as an activity. Excitement towards web searching or internet use is uncommon.

*Adapted from (Foss et al 2013:175) a study which shows search behaviour. It is, however, worth noting that this study is very small and non-representative of every young person but the study does give good insight into the affect of age when searching. There is also a suggestion that young searchers are less likely than adults to get distracted. This is important to know because user journeys of young people could be much shorter.

This study is particularly interesting if you are designing a website for a young target group or you have a young person in your user journey.

How to create better web technology

User behaviour shows that there are different types of searchers so it is clear that web creators need to cater for a range of people. How? Mix the site up. Having photos and videos, for example, will cater for visual searchers whereas utilising social media shares helps social searchers to share their search experience. This does not just stop at the user because Twitter shares help spread a brand which can also influence trust and brand authority. Technology co-facilitates one another.

Photo of social media logos.

Photo of social media logos. Source: Gstatic

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  1. Foss, E. Druin, A. Yip, J. Ford, W. Golub, E. and Hutchinson, H. (2013) Adolescent Search Roles. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 64(1) pp. 173 — 189