Understanding User Search Behavior with Eye Tracking

Eye tracking is a groundbreaking technology that provides invaluable insights into user search behavior by monitoring and analyzing eye movements. By utilizing advanced eye tracker software, researchers can better understand how users interact with search engines, websites, and digital content. This information allows designers and developers to optimize user experience, enhance information architecture, and ultimately improve the effectiveness of online platforms. As a result, eye tracking has emerged as a powerful tool in the digital landscape, enabling a deeper comprehension of the user’s cognitive processes and decision-making patterns.

What is Eye Tracking?

Eye tracking is a research technique that involves measuring and analyzing a subject’s eye movements, gaze patterns, and fixations to determine where and for how long they are looking. This technology is utilized to gain insights into user behavior, cognition, and visual attention while interacting with stimuli such as websites, advertisements, digital content, or physical objects. Eye-tracking data can optimize user experience, inform design decisions, and better comprehend human cognitive processes.

How does Eye Tracking work?

Eye tracking technology employs specialized hardware and software to precisely record eye movements, gaze patterns, and fixations in real-time, using infrared light reflections on the corneas. Various systems, such as video-based, remote, and head-mounted trackers, cater to diverse research applications. 

Eye tracking delivers a non-invasive, real-time method for comprehending user behavior, cognition, and attention, facilitating user experience optimization, visual design evaluation, and exploration of cognitive processes in both digital and physical settings.

What is the purpose of Eye Tracking?

The primary goal of eye tracking is to examine user behavior, cognition, and attention by accurately measuring and analyzing eye movements and gaze patterns during interactions with various stimuli. Eye tracking has numerous applications across diverse fields, offering insights for optimizing user experiences, guiding design decisions, and understanding cognitive processes. Examples include web design and usability testing, advertising and marketing, human-computer interaction research, and psychological and cognitive studies. Ultimately, eye tracking helps enhance user experiences, inform design strategies, and delve into human cognition across various domains.

What are the different patterns of Eye Tracking?

Eye tracking patterns refer to the various types of eye movements and gaze behaviors that individuals exhibit when observing or interacting with visual stimuli. These patterns can provide insights into attention, cognition, and visual processing. Here are 6 different patterns of eye tracking.

  1. Nystagmus
  2. Saccades
  3. Scanning
  4. Smooth Pursuit
  5. Vergence
  6. Fixation


Nystagmus is an involuntary, rhythmic oscillation of the eyes that typically results from a neurological or vestibular disorder.

Unlike other eye tracking patterns, nystagmus is an unintentional, uncontrolled movement rather than a purposeful, functional eye movement.

 A person with nystagmus might have difficulty maintaining a stable gaze on a stationary object, causing their eyes to drift and oscillate.


Saccades are rapid, ballistic eye movements that occur when the eyes shift focus from one point to another.

Saccades differ from other eye tracking patterns in their speed and purpose; they are the fastest eye movements and serve to quickly redirect the gaze.

When reading a sentence, our eyes make saccadic movements to jump from one word to another.


Scanning is a pattern of eye movement that involves a series of short, deliberate saccades and fixations to explore a visual scene or search for specific information.

 Scanning is a purposeful, organized eye movement pattern aimed at gathering information, unlike other patterns that may serve different functions or be involuntary.

When looking for a friend in a crowd, we scan the faces with a series of quick eye movements and brief fixations.

Smooth pursuit

Smooth pursuit is a slow, continuous eye movement that maintains focus on a moving object, keeping it centered on the fovea, the area of sharpest vision.

Unlike saccades, smooth pursuit is a slow, steady movement designed to track moving objects rather than rapidly shifting the gaze.

When watching a bird fly across the sky, our eyes engage in smooth pursuit to keep the bird in focus.


Vergence is the simultaneous inward or outward rotation of both eyes to maintain single, binocular vision as an object moves closer or farther away.

 Vergence differs from other eye tracking patterns in that it involves coordinated eye rotation to maintain depth perception, rather than individual eye movements.

 When focusing on a finger moving closer to the nose, our eyes engage in convergence (inward rotation) to maintain a single, focused image.


Fixations are brief moments when the eyes are relatively stable and focused on a specific point or object, allowing the brain to process and interpret the visual information.

Fixations involve the eyes being stationary, while other eye tracking patterns, such as saccades and smooth pursuit, involve eye movement.

When examining a painting, we make fixations on specific details, pausing momentarily to process the visual information before moving on to the next point of interest.

How does Eye Tracking vary by demographic?

Eye tracking can vary by demographic due to factors such as age, cultural background, and cognitive abilities, which can influence gaze patterns, attention, and visual processing.

As individuals age, changes in visual acuity, cognitive processing, and attention can lead to variations in eye tracking patterns. For example, older adults may exhibit longer fixations and slower saccades compared to younger individuals, possibly due to reduced visual acuity or cognitive processing speed.

Different cultural backgrounds can influence how individuals perceive and process visual information, resulting in variations in eye tracking patterns. For instance, people from Western cultures may exhibit more left-to-right scanning patterns due to the influence of reading direction, while individuals from East Asian cultures may demonstrate more holistic scanning patterns.

Individual differences in cognitive abilities, such as attention span, working memory, or information processing speed, can also affect eye tracking patterns. People with higher cognitive abilities may exhibit more efficient gaze patterns, rapidly identifying relevant information, while those with lower cognitive abilities might display more scattered or disorganized eye movements.

Eye-tracking patterns can vary across demographics due to factors like age, cultural background, and cognitive abilities, which can influence how individuals attend to and process visual stimuli.

What type of research is Eye Tracking?

Eye tracking is primarily a quantitative research method that uses specialized equipment to record and analyze eye movements and gaze patterns during engagement with visual stimuli. This method generates numerical data, such as fixation duration and gaze location, to study attention, cognition, and decision-making. While mainly quantitative, eye tracking can be combined with qualitative methods like interviews or think-aloud protocols for a more comprehensive understanding of participants’ thought processes and behavior.

How to use Eye Tracking data in improving search result ranking?

Using eye tracking data to improve search result ranking involves analyzing users’ gaze patterns and behaviors to optimize the presentation of search results and enhance the overall user experience. Here are 9 ways to apply eye tracking data for this purpose.

  1. Market research
  2. Human-computer interaction
  3. Advertising research
  4. Improve usability
  5. Optimize metadata
  6. Gaming and virtual environments
  7. Identity areas of interest
  8. Test different layouts
  9. Test different search algorithms

Market research

 Eye tracking can help identify which search results in users are most drawn to, informing marketers on how to better tailor their strategies. For example, marketers can optimize product listings or ad placements based on eye-tracking data.

Human-computer interaction

 Eye tracking provides insights into how users interact with search result pages, enabling designers to create more user-friendly interfaces. For instance, designers can make adjustments to font size, color, or layout based on users’ gaze patterns.

Advertising research

 Eye tracking helps determine which ads capture users’ attention, informing advertisers on how to design more effective campaigns. For example, advertisers can adjust ad placements, sizes, or formats based on users’ gaze behavior.

Improve usability

 Eye tracking data can reveal usability issues in search result ranking, allowing developers to make improvements. For instance, if users consistently overlook important results, developers can modify the ranking algorithm or visual presentation.

Optimize metadata

 By analyzing users’ gaze patterns, webmasters can optimize metadata like titles and descriptions to improve click-through rates. For example, if users tend to ignore certain keywords, they can be replaced with more attention-grabbing terms.

Gaming and virtual reality

 Eye tracking data can be used to design more immersive and engaging gaming experiences or VR applications. For example, game developers can optimize in-game search functions based on users’ gaze patterns.

Identify areas of interest

 Eye tracking helps pinpoint which aspects of search result pages draw users’ attention, providing insights into their preferences. For example, researchers can determine if users are more interested in images, headlines, or article summaries.

Test different layouts

 Eye tracking allows researchers to compare the effectiveness of various search result page layouts. For instance, they can test different result groupings or visual elements to see which layout maximizes user engagement.

Test different search algorithms

 Eye tracking data can be used to evaluate the performance of different search algorithms by observing how users interact with the search results. For example, researchers can compare user engagement with results generated by different ranking algorithms to determine which one produces the most relevant and attention-grabbing content.

What is the best eye tracking software?

Identifying the “best” eye tracking software depends on individual needs, research goals, and budgets. Tobii Pro Lab is a top-rated option known for reliability and ease of use. Developed by Tobii Technology, it provides a comprehensive toolkit for designing, executing, and analyzing eye tracking experiments, and supports various hardware. Its flexibility makes it a popular choice among researchers. However, considering personal requirements and exploring alternatives like iMotions or EyeLink is crucial for finding the most suitable software.

How to calculate eye tracking?

Eye tracking involves measuring eye movements and gaze patterns, rather than calculating a single value. Therefore, there isn’t a specific formula for “calculating” eye tracking. Instead, eye tracking systems collect and analyze various metrics related to eye movements.

Eye tracking is about measuring eye movements and gaze patterns, not calculating a single value.

Eye tracking systems use specialized hardware, such as cameras and infrared light sources, to monitor and record the position and movement of the eyes. Data from these systems is used to compute various metrics, including.

Fixations: Points where the eyes remain relatively stable, indicating focused attention. Fixation duration is a common measure, reflecting the time spent on a specific point or object.

Saccades: Rapid eye movements between fixations. Saccade amplitude (the distance between two fixations) and saccade duration (the time taken for the eye to move between fixations) are common metrics.

Gaze path: The sequence of fixations and saccades over time, showing the trajectory of the viewer’s attention.

Heatmaps: A visual representation of aggregated gaze data, with warmer colors indicating areas of higher visual attention.

These metrics provide insights into visual attention, cognitive processes, and user behavior. Eye tracking software, such as Tobii Pro Lab or iMotions, is used to analyze the collected data and generate these metrics for further interpretation and application in various research fields.

Is eye tracking useful?

Eye tracking is indeed useful, as it offers valuable insights into visual attention, cognitive processes, and user behavior across various applications. It helps identify usability issues, optimize advertising, study cognitive processes, improve human-computer interaction, develop assistive technologies for people with disabilities, enhance education and training, and create immersive gaming experiences. Its versatility demonstrates its value across a wide range of contexts and industries.

You may want to read some of the related UX and Marketing Guidelines.
  1. What is User-retention Rate?
  2. What is Conversion Funnel?
  3. What is a Mobile-first Design?
  4. What is Click Path?
Koray Tuğberk GÜBÜR

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Understanding User Search Behavior with Eye Tracking

by Koray Tuğberk GÜBÜR time to read: 8 min