Arnie WeissmannWhen designing websites or online ads, most small businesses work with a designer whose aesthetic appeals to them. They'll often go with their "instinct" on which headlines, subheads and blocks of copy will work best.

"A lot of people go with what their gut tells them, rather than how the brain works, and it's a big mistake," Jeff Bander, president of North America Operations for EyeTrackShop, told me.

In the war for eyeballs on the Web, EyeTrackShop fills the role of intelligence agency. Its tools are literally millions of webcams on people's home and office computers that provide a level of surveillance that, were it done without a user's permission, could form the basis for a plot element in a "Mission: Impossible" movie.

His company uses a computer's built-in webcam to track eye movement over a Web page (or any imagery displayed on the screen). By tracking eyeballs, he can determine exactly what people look at, in what order, and how long their eyes rest on certain elements. "People can't accurately articulate [these actions]," he said. "But eyes don't lie; they see what they see."

Eye-movement tracking is actually a 130-year-old discipline that took a quantum leap once webcams became standard issue on computers. I was first exposed to it in the mid-1990s when, after a meeting at Sabre headquarters, I was given a tour that included a visit to their in-house eye-tracking lab. In a darkened room, travel agent subjects were sitting in front of GDS green screens, listening to instructions as their faces were being taped by large video cameras.

The process involved considerable expense. In addition to the cost of building the lab, a handful of subjects had to be flown in, experiments had to be personally supervised, then painstakingly analyzed.

Today, consumers can be monitored in their own environment, using their own equipment, by software that has greatly increased the accuracy of the results.

While Bander's clients include Google, Procter & Gamble, Clear Channel and other corporate giants, he also works with smaller clients. His firm has conducted more than 300,000 eye-tracking studies, and he was willing to share with TravelWeekly.com's readers some general guidelines for building effective Web pages.

Additionally, he sent me a white paper done by researchers who developed eye-tracking software.

The findings are fascinating. Eyes, apparently, are windows to the brain as well as the soul.

The researchers discovered, for instance, that men begin their orientation on a Web page with photos, while women read text carefully. It will likely not surprise women that it was concluded this is because "women have higher verbal intelligence."

(Men, apparently lacking in self-awareness as well as verbal intelligence, also told researchers that they don't feel they really need "pictures" on a website.)

Although women are more careful readers of text, both are attracted to, and linger on, imagery, but how they react to that imagery depends upon where it's placed on the screen.

Because the right half of the brain is where graphics are processed, and because right and left get "switched" through the eyes, it's more effective to put pictures on the left and text blocks on the right. The brain doesn't like it when you reverse this. Poor placement can actually affect comprehension.

Some other rules: People like faces, and they linger longer on ambiguous expressions (think Mona Lisa) as compared with those that are obviously happy or sad. Motion does get a viewer's attention, but has to be relevant. Don't just wave your hand in front of someone's face, unless you have something important to say.

Similarly, color, the boldness of fonts or changes of fonts will get attention, but they have to be used sparingly ("one or two on a page, or you lose the whole benefit," Bander said).

In general, less is more.

"Don't put more than four or five clusters of information on a page," he said. "It has to do with human comfort levels. We feel more anxiety when we walk into a crowded room than one with only four or five people."

If you want to see for yourself what it's like to take part in an eye-tracking study, visit http://tinyurl.com/7a25rbu.  

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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