Google Instant Previews – Eye Tracking shows it’s game changing

November 11, 2010 5:13 pm

Google Instant Previews – Eye Tracking shows it’s game changing

Users always surprise because their behaviour changes with their environment. The online experience, and more specifically the tools that users have available to them when searching, is evolving with the introduction of Google Instant and Google Instant Preview and behaviour will be changing again.

Google Instant Previews allows users to see what a website looks like before committing to click through to the website. Next to each listing on the results page a magnifying glass icon appears. After users click on this once, a preview appears of that page to the right hand side. Subsequent hovering over other search results listings also previews pages.

There is much consternation about the consequences of this and how it will affect users and also affect future website design. It has the potential to support websites that adopt a greater user centred design approach based on the fact that users quickly make decisions on suitability from the first glance of a website.

How do users decide?

We observe users as they first enter a website and can understand what they are looking for, but this is normally through a process of observing users browse and make decisions and then get users to talk about what they were thinking at the time (see our methodology pages about eye tracking for more information). From our experience users look to see:

  • Who is this company? This is normally done by glancing to find the logo, so if the identity is prominent this should be picked up on a preview.
  • What kind of company are they? This is mainly ascertained by the use of imagery and the style of the website. If flash animations are prominent on the page then these may not reveal themselves on the preview. Google’s webmaster blog has more information on this.
  • Do I relate to them? As well as the style, the tone of the website can give this away. Normally relayed with language this is hard for the user to absorb from a small preview screenshot, but straplines and positioning text can help to portray this.
  • Does it communicate values and differentiators? This can be as simple as users being able to see the main features of the website and ascertain it’s functionality.
  • Does it look easy? Ease of use is sometimes gauged by the look and feel of the website. If it looks like it’s going to be easy to get started users are more likely to have a go and be engaged. Showing users an obvious navigation area may entice.

A different way of choosing

Eye Tracking Gazeplot: Choosing with instant previewWhere we normally see users scanning for keywords, with Google Instant Preview there is more possibility to compare and contrast before choosing. Users will no longer have to ‘take a punt’ but will be able to sneak a peek to judge whether they think it is relevant to them.

This could all lead to more satisfied users especially as it allows users to dismiss some websites that are less useful. Users often comment that websites need to look ‘legitimate’. User will be able to see the functionality of the website and make a decision based on their needs; shoppers can see if it looks like an e-commerce website and research can scan for information and content heavy websites. It may be used differently depending on the type of search carried out.

Finding relevant content

Eye Tracking Heat Map showing highlighted term

Eye Tracking Heat Map showing highlighted term

The search term from the user is highlighted on the preview screenshot in orange and the text is enlarged in a call out box. This allows the user to see their search term in context. They may also be able to make relevant decisions quickly by seeing if their keywords are highlighted at all, or maybe if it appears many times.

Eye Tracking users with Google Instant Previews

Here at SimpleUsability we often start our usability sessions with users naturally starting their journey from Google rather than taking them to a particular website. This emulates a more real life scenario. Just as we thought we could predict how someone will move through a search engine results page (serp) the space has changed again. So we decided to see how this actually affected real users conducting actual searches.

A small sample size was used and some general browsing tasks asked of users who were given the original Google website to use and then Google with Instant Previews.

Observed behaviour on the original Google website, without Instant Preview available, was that users scanned for their search term in the title, snippet or URL. They often have preconceptions about the URL and were looking for short and recognisable URL and initially filtered out the sponsored links.

We then showed them the Google Chrome browser that had Instant Preview available and here are some of our initial findings.

Initial usability findings

 Failing to find the potential

Gaze Plot: Missing Functionality

The majority of users missed that the magnifying glass icon was available to show a preview.

Users initially missed that the functionality was available. The moderator had to prompt the user that there was an option available on the search results page to preview the page before clicking into a result.

I think they are quite pale.”

“Without it being instantly visible, I think I would still glance down the titles and URLs.”

Misunderstanding the functionality

Gaze Plot of Recognising The Appropriate Website

User moved back and forward between the preview screenshot and the title trying to work out what to click on to access the website.

Gaze Plot: Unsure How to Access The Website

User was unsure what to click on to access the website so tried to click on the magnifying glass icon again.

Some users tried to click on the magnifying glass icon again to access the website and sometimes failed to realise that clicking on the actual preview screenshot would allow them to do this.

“When I did find it I was confused how to use it.”

Missed highlighted text

Gaze Plot: Drawn to photography over highlighted search term

User was drawn to the photographic elements to gauge whether the website had the type of products searched for.

Eye Tracking Gaze Plot: Failing to See Highlighted Text

User moved over the highlighted text without fixating on it.

We observed that users missed that the keywords highlighted to the user in orange were missed by the user. The user often moved across this area without fixating on it. When the eye tracking was played back to the user after they had finished using Google, there was confusion over what this actually meant.

“It obscures you being able to see the site in its entirety.”

“I didn’t notice it at the time.”

Recognising suitability

Gaze Plot: Recognising The Type of Web Page

User recognised that this looked like a content page and was dismissing anything that looked like a homepage.

 There are possibilities with this new functionality regarding recognition; either recognising a site that the user has been to before and being able to re-find that website, or finding a site that ‘looks like it will be suitable’. This is relevant when users are conducting a more navigational task such as finding a particular website of an organisation. 


Google Instant Previews could change the way that users browse search engine results pages, but only if they find and become aware of the functionality.

Google Instant Previews Eye Tracking Videos

User missed the instant preview options and therefore chose a website that was unsuitable. 


User unable to find the instant preview option and struggled to use it.