As the SERPs have continuously evolved over the years, multi-media and social elements have gradually worked their way into the search listings. However, the two largest search engines, Google and Bing, have taken increasingly different approaches both in what they display and how they display it.
Much has been written about the ‘what’—the divergent paths each have taken with social, with Bing partnering with Facebook and Twitter, and Google famously emphasizing their own social network. Yet, far less has been written about the ‘how’—the differing paths each have taken in how they each choose to present the growing cadre of information in their search engine results pages. In identifying this lack of perspective on the layout choices of the engines, we developed a methodology to extract the opinions of searchers about SERP layouts for queries that include social and universal results.
To understand how searchers feel about the differing layouts, we showed 150 respondents a screenshot of a SERP with social and universal elements called out. Using the same high-volume keyword for each engine, we chose a query that was reflective of a typical layout for each engine. Identifying logos were removed from the SERP and respondents were asked to set aside biases to the best of their ability even if identification of the search engine was still possible. Then respondents were asked several questions about specific elements of the SERP.
Searchers Do Not Want Social in their SERPs
Before asking respondents for their preferences for the engines’ layout choices, we first asked them how they feel about having social in the SERPs altogether.
It can be really difficult for people to imagine what ‘could be’ in an industry–Henry Ford famously once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Bearing that principle in mind, the survey responses likely represent the current utility perceived by searchers about social results mixed into search results, as opposed to what it could theoretically offer in the future.
Looking at it that way, the responses do not bode well for how searchers feel the engines have done thus far in including social in the SERPs: only 19% of searchers say they like it/benefit from it and an overwhelming majority of 62% do not want social results with search results. Respondents cited distraction from their search for information and concerns about privacy as top reasons why they don’t want it.
If Social in the SERPs is a Given, Searchers Prefer Bing over Google
Next we asked respondents to assume social in the SERPs was a given and indicate their preference for how Google implemented social in the SERPs compared to Bing. (Respondents were asked to consider only the layout choices of the two engines, not the choice of social networks or actual social content in the SERPs.)
Respondents showed a strong preference for the way Bing presented social results in the SERPs, with nearly double the percentage of respondents preferring it’s layout over Google. Bing’s placement of social results off to the side compared to Google’s inclusion in the natural search listings was cited most often as a reason for the preference.
Google's Universal Search Presentation Preferred Over Bing
We then asked respondents for their preferences in how the universal search results were presented by each engine (our example SERP had News, Shopping and Images universal result types). There While there was less parity in how each of the engines presented universal results when compared to social, but overall, respondents preferred Google’s presentation of digital assets in the SERP to Bing’s.
Digging deeper into user preferences of the individual elements of the universal results, searchers preferred Google’s presentation over Bing’s for all of the individual elements, with the widest preference gap occurring for ‘News’.
Conclusion: Search Engines Should Step Back and Reevaluate
With the continued evolution of the SERPs and ever more content–both in quantity and variety–making its way into the search results, it is important to occasionally step back and gauge how searchers feel about the changes. Thus far, it seems searchers do not want or benefit from the inclusion of social in the SERPs. If forced to choose a social-SERP layout style, they would choose Bing social results are set off to the side rather than directly mixed in with the search results. When it comes to universal, searchers prefer Google’s layout over Bing’s. In future columns we’ll continue our evaluation of the divergent layout choices the engines have made by examining searcher preferences of other SERP types.
A version of this article originally appeared in Search Engine Watch on August 14, 2012.