The online world is ever developing and naturally, public relations continuously adapts to various new communication tools. Therefore the need to analyse an audience’s receptivity to stimulus is increasing and as a result tools used to conduct said analyses are progressing. Web Analytics such as ‘Hitbox’ and ‘buzz’ monitors are widely used as reliable and effective measurement tools, however they have flaws and lack certain abilities. Eye tracking meanwhile provides insight into the human psyche, allowing those using the technology to understand whether their attempts at gaining an individual’s attention and interest are successful. The tool can measure an eye’s movement and focus as well as the length of time and order it gazes at objects. This essay will discuss the introduction of eye tracking to the online analysis market and will assess its usefulness to the PR industry and the online community.
Bvba, N (2001) notes ‘eye tracking helps software designers to evaluate the usability of their screen layouts’, however it was originally developed to in order to gain insight in to how people read. Edmund Huey is considered the first to build an eye tracking apparatus, he found ‘the eyes do not move continuously from left to right’ when reading, but instead ‘proceed by a succession of quick, short movements to the end, then return in one quick, usually unbroken movement to the left’ (Huey, 1908). Huey’s findings were the beginning of much investigation into the human eye and focus of attention.
Alfred Yarbus was the first to form a link between the movement of the eye and fixations or interest. Yarbus (1967) discovered that the eye both voluntarily and involuntarily fixates on elements of an object. Naturally, the more information that an element contains, the longer the fixation is. He concluded that ‘the order and duration of the fixations on elements of an object are determined by the thought process’ accompanying the analysis of the information obtained. Hence people who think differently also, to some extent, see differently’. Most importantly, Yarbus stated ‘eye movement reflects the human thought processes’.
This research analyzed reading behaviour, however tracking one’s eye movements whilst online is principal today. Online, the tool is used for the assessment of a variety of concepts, examples of these consist of advertising, search engines and homepage marketing. Existing research highlights behaviours of viewing search engine result pages; ‘several sources have likened the path of a user’s eye on a search results page to an F shape, with the majority of attention being given to the top few results’ (Granka et al. 2008).
Consequently a commonly used F layout has been developed for optimization, and vast amounts of money are spent on for example Search Engine Optimization or ‘Google AdWords’ every year.
Etre Limited (2006) conducted a study into five organisation’s webpage using eye tracking, one of which was Marks and Spencer, whose webpage was deemed effective and well laid out. When analyzing eye tracking results however, very little attention was paid to the main body of the page. Only one in forty participants actually clicked an item in the main area and instead most visual attention centered on the page header showing a focus around reaching a desired page.
Researchers also found when pages featured models users were distracted away from the clothes by model’s faces. This is a common phenomenon -as stated previously- however here it proves an ineffective tool for advertising clothing.
Eye tracking online has only been used since 2003 though there are already a variety of eye tracker devices available for diverse uses. The most non-invasive yet least accurate technology is a video eye tracker where the movement of the eye is recorded. A second type is an electro-oculography recording deemed invasive, it works by reading muscular movements surrounding the eye. Finally is a magnetic coil system, whereby coils are placed directly on the eye and are generally used for medical research.
Although the concept of eye tracking has been continuously developed and investigated since the 1950’s, unfortunately there are still flaws. Hoffman (1998) believes that visual attention is always slightly ahead of the eye (Unknown, 2011). Further to this, fixation on a particular element cannot be insinuated as having one particular emotional meaning. For example, a fixation on a model may mean attraction, distaste, recognition or even that the individuals mind is elsewhere. In terms of accessibility, the more sensitive the machinery, the greater the cost, however technology developments mean some are very low cost and relatively easy to operate. Expertise and quality apparatus are vital in producing accurate and effective data. Dbrendant (2010) believes eye tracking is merely ‘an expensive gadget that doesn’t tell a usability analyst more than they already know’.
Eye tracking technology may not have reached perfection, but it has certainly allowed the market to progress considerably. Ross, J (2009) believes it provides data a facilitator cannot otherwise observe and participants cannot report accurately. Take for example the finding that individuals are naturally drawn to faces.
If a webpage contains an image of a face, its audience is more likely to spend more time on the page. Further to this, eye tracking has uncovered that we follow the direction of the featured model’s eyes (Fadeyev,D. 2009).
This means industry professionals can attract visitor’s attention and can partially control where its audience looks.
Eye tracking can ultimately be seen as an advantageous tool for integrated marketing communications as it enhances value for money by utilizing research to alter web content for a more effective outcome. Such insight can be used by public relations practitioners to draw an audience’s attention to key points of interest or important information. As a result of eye tracking, practitioners can understand how an individual subconsciously behaves whilst online; something individuals cannot report on. Although not perfect, eye tracking is an innovative concept which has provided organizations with the ability to view their website critically and consequently, enhance it into an effective public relations tool.
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