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Effective Internet Search: Research

Why Search Fails?

by Judith Gill

In our recent research, search failed users 66% of the time.
- Jared M. Spool, User Interface Engineering, October 2002 [1]

Searching the Internet to the Max

We're convinced searches fail for one major reason lack of know-how. Some common errors:

  • Lack of search training.
  • Poor search skills.
  • Not understanding how search engines work.

We've been studying Internet searching in-depth for more than three years now. And we'd like to share what we've learned with you. Here are some reasons why search may fail you.

  1. Lack of search training

80% of the cyber world uses the Internet without formal training.
- Paul Gil, The Frustrations of Not Understanding the Internet, 2004 [2]

For detailed help, see Improve your searches now!

It's not very logical! Consider:

  • Searching is one of the most important and valued activities on the Internet.
  • Billions of documents are available online.
  • There's over three hundred search engines to choose from, each with its own unique way of finding information.

Yet people persist in using trial and error to locate content.

Implications for you: Locating content is not always as simple or obvious as it looks. Eventually you may find what you want - or not. But why take the chance?

  1. Poor search skills
Despite dramatic changes in its size and content, the way people interface with the Web has not significantly changed.
- IEEE Computer, July 2001 [3]

Even as the Web becomes increasingly complex, user search behaviors have remained consistently simple in nature. Common search errors:

  • Using a single search engine for all searches.
  • Not entering enough search terms.
  • Abandoning searches without refining queries.
  • Not looking beyond the first page of results.
  • Avoiding advanced search features.
For detailed help, see Improve your searches now!

Implications for you: More than ever before, finding information takes know-how. The trick is to employ the most effective and efficient search techniques given your desired target information. Searching the Internet is a skill — one you can learn and improve.

  1. Not understanding how search engines work

Users are largely unaware that search engines may not be neutral guides to the online world.
- Consumer WebWatch, April 2002 [5]

"First equals best" is the prevailing mentality among Internet searchers. Because most naively rely on search engines to list the best, most relevant, accurate, trustworthy and unbiased results first:

  • Few users explore beyond the first page of findings [6]. A 2002 iProspect study concluded that half of users make their selection within the first page of results because "they expect that the Web sites with the highest search engine listings are the top in their field" [7].
  • Many selected links may actually be paid listings companies or individuals paying to be placed on the top of results pages (41% of links selected by users were paid listings in one Consumer WebWatch report [6]).
  • There's a higher risk of making flawed decisions based on information prominently ranked due to paid placements (e.g., health or financial [6]).

Users are often unaware that many popular search engines accept fees for prominent placement on results lists; one study found 60% didn't know [6]. And once they find out, they have less trust in search engines, and the accuracy or credibility of links on the first page of results.

Users also don't understand that search results are often influenced by:

  • How search engines make money their business models; (some users don't even realize they are money-making businesses).
  • How alliances between search companies, and the deals they make, impact search findings.
  • How search engines work how they gather data, then index, rank and prioritize it into catalogues (databases) to answer user queries.

Implications for you: Everyone has the same goal when searching you want the most relevant and/or authoritative information presented and prioritized in the most appropriate fashion for your needs. Understanding the basic inner workings of search engines how their ranking and prioritizing technologies work, how they make their money, and how this influences the search results you get, is a key part of optimizing your Internet searches and of being a successful user.

When searches don't succeed

The more users searched, the less likely they were to find what they wanted.
- Jared M. Spool, User Interface Engineering, November 2001 [8]

Although this sounds counterintuitive, experience does not necessarily guarantee improved search skills. Usability expert Jared Spool says, "Theoretically, as people use the search engine, they should get better at making it perform. After all, each successive interaction is a learning moment something that is teaching them the idiosyncrasies of the tool. But that's not what we've seen. Either users succeed up front, or things go downhill rapidly" [8].

If searchers share one universal trend worldwide, it's impatience. The average duration of a search session is reportedly only 1 minute, 50 seconds.
- Mondosoft, July 2002 [10]

Another usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, agrees. "If users don't find the result with their first query, they are progressively less and less likely to succeed with additional searches. Many users don't even bother. In our study, almost half the users whose first search failed gave up immediately" [9].

Implications for you: If you don't find the information you want on the first try, it's less and less likely you will ever find it. Users want results fast — and with little effort. And, if they don't find what they want right away, they will most likely quit. So locating target content quickly and accurately on the first try is key made a lot simpler if you develop better search skills.


References & Links
  1. User Interface Engineering, The Sum of All Findings: Users Need Help, Featured Talks, Jared M. Spool, UIE Conference 7, Boston, October 2002.

  2. Paul Gil, Internet 101: The Frustrations of Not Understanding the Internet, About.com, 2004: netforbeginners.about.com/cs/internet101/a/internet101.htm

  3. IEEE/CS Computer, Identifying Web Browsing Trends and Patterns, Alan L. Montgomery and Christos Faloutsos, July 2001: pages.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/~saul/personal/other_pubs/r7094.pdf

  4. Upstart Competitors Try to Outdo Google, Anick Jesdanun, Associated Press (AP) Internet Writer, March 26, 2004: finance.lycos.com/qc/news/story.aspx?story=200403262031_APO_V6080&symbols=INDUSTRY:32
  5. Consumer WebWatch, A Matter of Trust: What Users Want From Web Sites, Princeton Survey Research Associates, April 16, 2002: www.consumerwebwatch.org/news/1_abstract.htm

  6. Consumer WebWatch, False Oracles: Consumer Reaction to Learning the Truth About How Search Engines Work, Leslie Marable, New York, June 30, 2003: www.consumerwebwatch.org/news/searchengines/index.html

  7. iProspect Search Engine Branding Survey, May 2002: www.iprospect.com/web_site_promotion/press11142002.htm

  8. UIETips, Users Don't Learn to Search Better, Jared M. Spool, November 27, 2001: world.std.com/~uieweb/Articles/not_learn_search.htm

  9. Alertbox, Search: Visible and Simple, Jakob Nielsen, May 13, 2001: www.useit.com/alertbox/20010513.html

  10. Mondosoft, Web Site Usability Metrics: Search Behavior - Search Trends, July 2002: www.mondosoft.com/SearchBehaviorWP.pdf


FREE SEARCH HELP

On Site Resources

Search Tool Guide

BUY THE BOOK
ABOUT THE BOOK
FAQ's
Audiences
User Benefits
Overview & Contents
Book Excerpts
Awards-Reviews
Updates
OTHER
Contact Us
Authors
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Effective Internet Search: E-Searching Made Easy!         Baylin Systems, Inc., 2006