How Important is it to be Number 1 ? More Than You Think

Tom Foster and I attended SMX East a few weeks ago in New York, and among all of information in the presentations and seminars that I attended, one set of images stood out in my mind and really seemed to re-emphasize how important search engine optimization really is.

There have always been debates as to whether or not it matters for a website to rank number one on Google for a specific search term. I mean, as long as the site is on page one, it should be found just fine, right?

Not necessarily, and no matter how often SEO’ers try to convince their clients that just being on page one isn’t always enough, there’s almost always some hesitancy for the client to accept this “opinion” and invest more in their SEO efforts.

Well, during one SMX East presentation entitled “Google Instant’s Impact on SEO and User Behavior”, presenter Ian Everdell of Inquiro Solutions shared some interesting graphics that confirmed the legitimacy of the “number one or bust” theory.

The overall purpose of the presentation was to show those in the search industry how Google’s new Instant feature, where suggestions are made in real-time and search results are displayed based on these suggestion as the user types in keywords and keyword phrases, has impacted search engine optimization and how the average user reacts to certain aspects of the new search engine feature.

In addition to Ian were presenters Eli Feldblum of RankAbove and Othar Hansson of Google (by the way, did I ever mention that I am jealous of everyone in the SEO industry who have unique names? Have you ever tried getting on page one for “George Murphy”?? Ugh).

Before I share the graphics that I’m referring to, just a quick recap of the entire presentation. A survey was conducted asking Google Instant users how they viewed the new search engine feature. The results were:

  1. People don’t love Google Instant
  2. People don’t hate Google Instant, and
  3. During the presentation Google pleaded the fifth on any interesting questions, like how many people actually disable Google Instant and some other questions that they side-stepped or simply “couldn’t share that at this time”.

In other words, Google Instant isn’t doing much in terms of improving the user’s overall experience, and in my opinion, seems like an unnecessary “improvement” and possibly a way for Google to hike up the costs for certain keywords on the PPC side by determining what suggestions are made during user search queries.

Okay, back to the main topic: Why it’s important to be number one on Google.

During his presentation, Ian shared results from an eye tracking survey that was performed on users who searched for certain search terms on both Google (traditional) and Google Instant. The survey tracked the user’s eyes and behavior and recorded the results as heatmaps, showing where the users paid the most attention, and where they barely looked.

Google Search, No Instant or Local Results

The first image is from a normal Google search (without Google Instant and without Google Local being displayed). The red is the area where users paid the most attention, the yellow is the second most , and the green is the least.

Google Eye Tracking Result

Obviously the number one result stood out the most for the users, with number two getting a few looks, number three getting less than that, and it continues to trickle down as the users scrolled down the page. Also, the PPC ads on the right didn’t get too many looks, but were paid attention to by some.

Google Instant Search, No Google Local

The second image is a search where users were suggested search phrases by Google Instant.

Google Instant

The users did pay attention to the suggestions that Google Instant made, but in terms of which search results they looked at the most, number one still stood out from the most by a wide margin.

Actually, if you look closely, the page title for the first result in the non-Google-Instant graphic is where most users looked the most. But in the Google Instant result, the users looked at the preview first, which could mean that users don’t fully trust Google Instant and want to read the preview to make sure the result is relevant to what they are actually looking for.

What does that mean for you as a webmaster or SEO’er? A meta description that ensures the searcher (and your potential client) that your website/page is what they are looking for from a conversion standpoint, while also being optimized for keywords from an SEO-standpoint may be more important than ever.

And of course, this image follows the general theme: number one is the hottest, number two is lukewarm, number three is cooling down, and number ten is frigid.

It’s also interesting that some users looked to the right for PPC ads even though they weren’t there. Maybe they were thinking too hard knowing that they were being surveyed, or maybe some users look to the right not even knowing it because they’re so used to how Google results are displayed and expect the Sponsored Listings to be there. Either way you look at it, an argument can be made that PPC advertising on Google still has some value and that not everyone completely ignores these ads.

Google Search With Local Results, No Instant

The third image is from a search query without Google Instant where Google Local results are displayed.

Google Local without Instant

If this image were to summarize Google users’ behavior, is it important for your business to come up for Google Maps/Google Local searches? Um, yes.

Google Local results also seem to follow the same pattern, where the top results are more prevalent than lower results.

Organic listings are still paid attention to on this search, but the most views went to the Local results that appeared above the fold. And, once again, the Sponsored Listings on the right also got a few looks.

Google Instant and Google Local

And the last image is from a search where Google Instant AND Google Local results were displayed

Google instant with local

What’s interesting in this search is that users apparently paid so much attention to the Google Instant recommendations and Google Local results on the top, that they hardly even looked at the actual organic search results.

This means that, with Google Instant apparently being used by a large majority of users (meaning that most users don’t opt to deactivate the Instant feature), if you’re a local business and you know that you want to rank well for certain local searches, it’s pretty important that your business appears on the Google Local searches and preferably somewhere near the top. If you’re ranking number eight on Google and counting on that to be enough, you might be mistaken.


Do these graphics represent all search users? No. Everyone searches on and uses Google in different ways. Not everyone searches for the same keywords and keyword phrases, not everyone clicks on the same results based on position, and not everyone pays attention to the same features such as maps and recommendations.

Also, is this likely to change as Google Instant evolves and users become more familiar with the new way of search? Probably.

But one thing seems certain: if you’re not number one for a search terms that you know you should be ranking well for, you’re probably losing out on a good amount of visits (and, in all likelihood, more clients/leads).

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