bad research about LinkedIn and profile photos

This morning, I woke up to something that made me quite cranky: bad research.  Business Insider posted an article titled This Heatmap Proves That Looks Are The Most Important Thing On Your LinkedIn Profile, which refers to a study done by TheLadders titled Keeping an eye on recruiter behavior (pdf).

The heatmap, which was created by using an eyetracker to determine where users look on the screen and how long they spend their time there, is an awesome example of bad research.  The article shows exceptionally bad analysis from Business Insider.  Here’s how it goes off-base:

  1. The heatmap ignores all known research about how people read screens.  In short, people scan the screen, and they start scanning in the upper-left corner.  In some 2006 research from the Nielsen Norman Group, they say that web users tend to scan pages using an F pattern.  Any designer who has been designing for more than ten microseconds knows that the upper-left corner is the most prime real estate in their design.  Given that LinkedIn’s profile pictures are in the upper-left corner of the profile, it is no surprise at all that the heatmap shows that it’s where everyone starts.
  2. The heatmap ignores research about photographs on webpages.  To again point to the NNG, they published some eyetracking research in 2010 that shows that photographs of real people get the most attention on some types of websites.  So again, it’s no surprise that the heatmap shows that a real photograph gets the most attention.
  3. The research does nothing to determine if moving the photograph elsewhere would have an impact on the amount of time that’s spent viewing the photograph.  The research that I cited in the second point implies that it wouldn’t, but it also appears from the report that all of the photographs that were used in their research started in the upper-left and continued on down the leftmost column, which is where the eye tends to fall naturally anyway.  To prove that the amount of time spent on the photograph is disproportionate, they would have had to do a separate eyetracking study that used a mockup of LinkedIn profiles where the photograph was placed elsewhere and compared the results.
  4. The assertion of Business Insider about attractiveness aside, the research doesn’t appear to have actually considered the attractiveness of the person in the photograph.  The research did not compare profiles with less-attractive photos to those with more-attractive photos.  They just proved that recruiters spend time looking at the picture, not that attractiveness had anything to do with it.
  5. The research doesn’t discuss profiles without photos.  Do those profiles not get as much attention?
  6. The research did nothing to prove that there is a difference in outcomes.  They had recruiters look at the profiles, but it doesn’t appear that they were doing it with a specific goal of finding someone to contact about a position.  To prove that the photograph matters, as Business Insider asserts, you would have to show that people who are similarly qualified but have a better photograph are the ones who are selected to be contacted by the recruiter.  And you’d have to do this across at least three types of profiles: ones with an attractive photo, a not-attractive photo, and without a photo.

What I find especially amusing is that the original research from TheLadders says this:

LinkedIn’s profiles had higher levels of visual complexity, and their ease of use suffered substantially as a result. Advertisements and “calls-to-action” created clutter that reduced recruiters’ ability to process the profiles. Finally, eye tracking-based “heat maps” of LinkedIn profiles showed that recruiters fixated for an average 19% of the total time spent – on profile pictures, instead of examining other vital candidate information.

TheLadders’ recommendation is that you use their profile service instead of LinkedIn’s, and also that you have your resume professionally written, which (conveniently) is a service that they provide.  So we’re not exactly talking about unbiased research to begin with, although the assertions made by Business Insider are pretty unrelated to the original research.  I can only hope that Vivian Giang, the author of the Business Insider article, only saw that heatmap of the LinkedIn profile and somehow didn’t have an internet connection so that she could spend the three seconds necessary to find the original research.

Bad research and bad analysis, all wrapped up in one package.  How appalling.

5 thoughts on “bad research about LinkedIn and profile photos”

  1. I just read that same Ladder’s article and googled to see what else I could find on the subject, and came to your post. You make excellent points. I’ve always thought the professional headline was on e of the most important elements on LinkedIn, and while that field defaults to your current job title, the field can be customized. I wondered if that field made a difference, too.

    1. The comments thread on that post has an interesting point: according to one commenter, if you use the paid LinkedIn recruiter service, the versions of the profiles that are shown through that service don’t have pictures. Now, obviously not every recruiter or hiring manager who views profiles is using this paid service, but it calls into question the analysis done by Business Insider even more.

  2. I like the fact you cite your sources. I am tired of reading articles, and having to ask, where did you get this information from.

    1. As a researcher, I always try to give references when appropriate. Being able to cite sources, and thus discuss the veracity of the source, means that we can have a better and more meaningful conversation about the topic at hand.

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