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
Searching the Internet to the
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.
Lack of search training
80% of the cyber world uses the Internet without
- Paul Gil, The Frustrations of Not
Understanding the Internet, 2004 
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
Yet people persist in using trial and error to locate
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?
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 
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 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.
Not understanding how search engines work
Users are largely unaware that search
engines may not be neutral guides to the online
- Consumer WebWatch, April
"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:
. 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" .
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 ).
There's a higher risk of making flawed decisions
based on information prominently ranked due to paid
placements (e.g., health or financial ).
- Few users explore beyond the first page of findings
Users are often unaware that many popular search
engines accept fees for prominent placement on results
lists; one study found 60% didn't know .
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
- How alliances between
search companies, and the deals they make, impact search
- 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
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"
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 
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"
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
References & Links
Interface Engineering, The Sum of All
Findings: Users Need Help, Featured Talks,
Jared M. Spool, UIE Conference 7, Boston,
Paul Gil, Internet 101:
The Frustrations of Not Understanding the
Internet, About.com, 2004:
IEEE/CS Computer, Identifying Web Browsing
Trends and Patterns, Alan L. Montgomery and Christos Faloutsos, July 2001:
Competitors Try to Outdo Google, Anick Jesdanun, Associated
Press (AP) Internet Writer, March 26, 2004:
Consumer WebWatch, A Matter of Trust: What
Users Want From Web Sites, Princeton Survey
Research Associates, April 16, 2002:
Consumer WebWatch, False Oracles: Consumer
Reaction to Learning the Truth About How
Search Engines Work, Leslie Marable, New York,
June 30, 2003:
iProspect Search Engine Branding Survey, May
UIETips, Users Don't Learn to Search Better,
Jared M. Spool, November 27, 2001:
Alertbox, Search: Visible and Simple, Jakob
Nielsen, May 13, 2001:
Mondosoft, Web Site Usability
Metrics: Search Behavior - Search Trends, July