You might think it's obvious that a firm should seek to have its advertisement ranked first in a list of sponsored search engine results. Being at the top of the list of sponsored search listings ought to be desirable, right? Well, not so fast! Wharton Professor Kartik Hosanagar and his co-authors Ashish Agarwal and Michael D. Smith examined online ad auctions in some recent research. They found that the ads in the top position do generate the most clicks, but that doesn't necessarily turn into the most revenue or profit. The scholars found that ads in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions seemed to have higher conversion rates (% of clicks turning into purchases). That's interesting, of course, since it is more expensive to be placed in the first position.
Why might that be the case? The researchers offered two potential explanations. First, many consumers clicking on the top ad might not be serious buyers. They may just be looking for information on a particular product or service, and so they click on the first ad as part of a broad information gathering strategy. Second, consumers may be exhibiting what psychologists call the recency bias. In other words, they click on the top ad, and then click on the next few sponsored search ads to compare pricing or product features. However, they don't return to the top ad in many cases before making a choice. According to the researchers, consumers tend to "purchase from the most recently evaluated advertiser if all evaluated
options appear reasonable."