January 23, 2005

Search Engine Users

Part 4. The searcher and his search engine

Only some searchers rely on search engines.

A recent  study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that while growing numbers of internet users conduct an increasing variety of activities online, from looking up phone numbers to buying tickets to getting the news, they are not integrating their internet use into their everyday lives in a robust way.21 Users continue to do all these activities predominantly in the traditional offline ways, suggesting that most users are not yet largely reliant on the internet.

Data from this survey support this finding: A full half of searchers say they “like using search engines” but could revert to other ways of finding information. One-third of searchers say they couldn’t live without search engines. Some 17% say they wouldn’t really miss search engines if they could no longer use them. 

Some 55% of searchers said they like using search engines, but they could go back to the old ways of finding information.

In many recent surveys from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, we are beginning to find that about one third of users are distinguishing themselves as a kind of “power user,” someone who does more online, more frequently, with more engagement, and more sophistication. Data here from the third of searchers who say they “can’t live without search engines” add to this body of knowledge.

Who are these searchers who rely most on their engines? Those who say they can’t live without search engines are more likely to be men (54%) than women (46%). They are more likely to be young, better-educated and of higher income. Users’ veteran status on line also matters; 70% of those who say they can’t lives without search engines have been online 6 or more years, compared to 54% of all internet users.

The most reliant searchers are more engaged with searching. Some 44% of those who can’t live without search use search engines more frequently, several times a day, compared to 12% of others.  The fact that those who say they can’t live without search engines  place more value on their internet searches than others do, may explain some of their reliance. Some 41% of reliant searchers say what they look up on search engines is “mostly important” to them, significantly more than the 21% of others. Further, significantly fewer of these searchers say what they search for is mostly unimportant to them or that they search for both important and trivial information, than do the rest of searchers.

Reliant searchers also say they are more successful: Some 24% say they always find what they’re looking for, significantly more than the 13% of others, who are more likely to say they find their information most of the time. Not surprisingly, they show more confidence in themselves as searchers as well. Some 64% of reliant searchers say they are very confident in their searching abilities, compared to 40% of others, who are mostly likely to say they are somewhat confident.

Most searchers remain steadfast in using a favorite engine or two.

In this survey, 44% of searchers say they regularly use a single search engine, while most of the rest, 48%, will use just two or three, and a scant 7% will use more than three.

Why do some users stick to one engine while others move from engine to engine? Is it loyalty, trust, or satisfaction, convenience or usability, habit or comfort, that different engines are good for different kinds of searches, or some combination thereof? Here are some things we have learned.

Data suggest that the 7% of those who use more than 3 engines on a regular basis are more sophisticated, directed searchers and are comfortable in the world of searching. In significant numbers, this elite group represents more frequent searchers; 36% of them launch at least several searches a day, compared to 24% of those who use 2 – 3 engines and 20% of those who stick to one engine.  They also claim more confidence in their search skills than others; 59% call themselves very confident searchers, compared to 50% of those using 2 – 3 engines and 46% of those using just one. They take their searching more seriously than others:  44% say that most of what they search for is likely to be important information to them, compared to 30% of searchers using 2 – 3 engines and 23% of those using just one engine.

This profile suggests that searchers who regularly use the largest variety of search engines do so deliberately, based on  which engines better match which of their queries, rather than  moving haphazardly from engine to engine. They are probably the knowledgeable searchers, who partake of the array of specialized or focused search engines.

Some 44% of searchers stick to just one engine. Is that out of loyalty or habit?

Danny Sullivan, editor of the newsletter SearchEngineWatch, describes one appeal to discerning users. “Search engines,” Sullivan says, “are like movie critics. We have our favorites. If a film is a tossup, we like to go to others for multiple opinions. Jeeves’ technology isn’t necessarily any better than Google’s, but the fact that it’s different gets people turning to them.”22

One more nimble searcher describes his search methods and the engines’ different personalities:

  • “Depending on the type of information I seek, I use either Excite or Ask Jeeves.  For example, if I’m looking for a word definition, I’ll ‘ask Jeeves’ and then may visit other websites that “he” suggests for further information on the word I’m researching.  If I’m looking for biographical data or a telephone number or information about a company, I’ll use Excite.  With either search, I usually find what I want within the first few offered answers.  If the information I want cannot be found fairly quickly, I either attempt a few URL possibilities or give up! “

On the other extreme, searchers who stick with one engine show less serious engagement with their searching.  They search less often, with less confidence, and for information that is less likely to be important to them.  Further, they show less passion about searching; some 21% of them say they wouldn’t really miss engines if they were gone tomorrow, compared to 13% of those who use multiple engines.

What drives the search habits of these single-engine users? The profile here suggest that searchers who use a single engine stay there because they’re comfortable enough with how they’re searching and what they’re getting in returns.

People who use just one engine describe their engagement with engines in more simple ways. Here is a sampling of what they say:

  • “Google is clean, fast and thorough.”        
  • “I use Google, it is fast and comprehensive.”
  • “Google, is the search engine I use 98% of the time. I use it almost exclusively because it is fast and accurate. I go directly to vendor sites when I have that option.”
  • “I use Google because it gives me better searches”
  • “It’s fast and what I’m looking for is almost always in the top page of results.”

A study by the search engine marketing firm iProspect interpreted high incidence of sticking to one, 57% of users, or a few search engines, 31% of users, as an expression of loyalty. They also found that 92% of users demonstrated that if they were unsatisfied with results from a search, they would rather launch another search at the same engine than switch to another search engine, a finding they interpreted as searchers’ confidence in their searching ability.23

Chris Sherman, in reporting on iProspect’s finding in his SearchEngineWatch column suggests that these results might be interpreted not as loyalty and confidence but rather as habit and laziness on the part of searchers.24

In findings that support this alternate interpretation of why searchers stay put, searchers show they are willing to tolerate considerable compromise in their overall searching life. comScore reports that users’ satisfaction with search engines, although high, falls short of their even higher expectations.  comScore finds that while 91% of users say it is important to them that results match their needs, only 66% are satisfied that search  engines do that for them. Similarly, while 90% say it’s important to them that search engines return accurate results, only 67% are satisfied that their search engines do that for them. Regardless, comScore finds that overall, 78% of searchers report being satisfied with their search engines, with 32% of those being “very satisfied”.25

Searchers trust their search engines.

In impressive numbers, users trust their search engines. Some 68% of users in our survey say that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information. Some 19% disagree, saying they don’t have that trust in search engines.

There are indicators that the 68% of those who consider search engines fair and unbiased are less knowledgeable, engaged, and experienced in the world of search than the 19% of those who are more skeptical. 

Those who trust their engines are less frequent searchers. Only 20% search several times a day, and 30% search every few weeks or less. By contrast, of those who don’t trust their search engines, 31% search several times a day and 20% search every few weeks or less.  Those who trust their engines are more likely to use just one search engine, 46%, compared to 38% of those who don’t trust. Those who trust are more likely to say they wouldn’t miss search engines if they were gone tomorrow, 18%, compared to 12% of those who don’t trust search engines. Despite that, by one measure, those who trust report greater success in finding their results: 19% say always find what they’re looking for compared to 10% of others.

The most dramatic difference between the two groups is in awareness of two of the most controversial issues in the search world. When asked about the issue of search engines offering two kinds of results, some that are paid or sponsored and others that are unpaid, 55% of those who don’t think engines offer fair and unbiased results had heard of the issue, compared to 33% of those who do think so.  Similarly,  of those who think search engines are not fair and unbiased, some 61% have heard that some search engines track how customers use their engines and what they search for, compared to  38% of those who do think search engines are fair and unbiased.