January 23, 2005

Search Engine Users

Internet users are very positive about their online search experiences.

Search engines are highly popular among internet users. Searching the internet is one of the earliest activities people try when they first start using the internet, and most users quickly feel comfortable with the act of searching. Users paint a very rosy picture of their online search experiences. They feel in control as searchers; nearly all express confidence in their searching skills. They are happy with the results they find; again, nearly all report that they are usually successful in finding what they’re looking for. And searchers are very trusting of search engines, the vast majority declaring that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information.

  • 84% of internet users have used search engines. On any given day, 56% of those online use search engines.
  • 92% of those who use search engines say they are confident about their searching abilities, with over half of them, 52%, saying they’re “very confident”.
  • 87% of searchers say they have successful search experiences most of the time, including some 17% of users who say they always find the information for which they are looking.
  • 68% of users say that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information; 19% say they don’t place that trust in search engines.

Most searchers use search engines conservatively.

Despite their positive feelings, few internet users are highly committed to searching.  Most say they could walk away from search engines tomorrow and return to the traditional ways of finding information. About one third of users search on a daily basis, but most search infrequently, with almost half searching no more than a few times a week.  Nearly all settle into a habit of using one or just a couple search engines, with only a very few searchers branching out to try more than three.

  • 50% of searchers say they could go back to other ways of finding information; 32% say they can’t live without search engines; and 17% say could let them go tomorrow.
  • 47% of searchers will use a search engine no more than once or twice a week; 35% of searchers will use a search engine at least once a day.
  • 44% of searchers say they regularly use a single search engine, 48% will use just two or three, 7% will use more than three.

Most internet users are naïve about search engines.

While most  consumers could easily identify the difference between TV’s regular programming and its infomercials, or  newspapers’ or magazines’ reported stories and their advertorials, only a little more than a third of search engine users are aware of  the analogous sets of content commonly presented by search engines,  the paid or sponsored results and the unpaid or “organic” results. Overall, only about 1 in 6 searchers say they can consistently distinguish between paid and unpaid results.

This finding is particularly ironic, since nearly half of all users say they would stop using search engines if they thought engines were not being clear about how they present their paid results. Users do not object in principle to the idea that search engines will include paid results, but they would like them to be upfront and clear about the practice of presenting paid results.

  • 38% of searchers are aware of a distinction between paid and unpaid results; 62% are not.
  • 18% of searchers overall (47% of searchers who are aware of the distinction) say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not.
  • 70% of searchers are okay with the concept of paid or sponsored results.
  • 45% of searchers would stop using search engines if they thought the engines weren’t being clear about offering some results for pay.

Experienced and sophisticated searchers cast a slightly more skeptical eye toward search engines than do average searchers.

  • 65% of those with 6 or more years of online experience say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information; 73% of others who have been online 5 years or less say so.
  • 64% of those who use engines at least daily say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information; 71% of those who use search engines less often say so.
  • 63% of those who use more than 3 search engines say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information; 69% of others say so.

Internet users turn to search engines for both their important and their trivial questions.

Over half of searchers say they split their searches among those for fun and those that are more important to them. We know from search logs that the most popular search terms are dominated by pop culture, news events, trends, and seasonal topics. These kinds of search terms constitute about half of what people search for; the other half are “unique” terms that reflect users’ diversity of idiosyncratic and special interests.

  • 55% of searchers say about half the information they search for is important to them and half is trivial.
  • 28% of searchers say most of the information they search for is important to them.
  • 17% of searchers say most of the information they search for is trivial.

There are some demographic differences among searchers: men and younger users are more plugged into the world of searching than women and older users.

More men than women use search engines and are familiar with some of the controversial issues about search engines. Men search more frequently than women. They have a higher opinion of themselves as searchers than women do, despite being no more successful in finding what they’re looking for. They also tend to stick more often to a single engine, while women have a few favorites.

  • 88% of men who are internet users have used search engines.
  • 79% of women who are internet users have used search engines.
  • 40% of online men search at least daily, with 28% searching several times a day.
  • 27% of women search at least daily, with 16% searching several times a day.
  • 54% of online men say they are very confident in their search abilities.
  • 40% of women say they are very confident in their search abilities.
  • 43% of men have heard of the distinction between paid and unpaid results.
  • 32% of women have heard of the distinction between paid and unpaid results.

The youngest users, those 18 – 29 years old, who have practically grown up with the internet, are more likely to be searchers. They search more often and are more confident about their search abilities. They also rely more on search engines and are more trusting and tolerant of them.

  • 89% of internet users under 30 years have used search engines, compared to 85% of those 30 – 49 years, 79% of those 50 – 64 years, 67% of those over 65 years.
  • 27% of internet users under 30 years use search engines several times a day, compared to 25% of those 30 – 49 years; 15% of those 50 – 64 years and 8 % of those over 65 years.
  • 97% of internet users under 30 years express confidence in their search skills, compared to 93% of those 30 – 49 years; 83% of those 50 – 64 years and 79% of those over 65 years.
  • 36% of internet users under 30 years say they couldn’t live without search engines, compared to 35% for 30 – 49 years, 26% of those 50 – 65 years, and 18% of those over 65 years.
  • 72% of internet users under 30 years say engine are fair and unbiased, compared to 68% of those 30 – 49 years; 65% of those 50 – 64 years, and 66% of those over 65 years.
  • 74% of internet users under 30 years say it is fine for search engines to offer paid and unpaid results, compared to 71% of those 30 – 49 years, 67% of those 50 – 64 years and 60% of those over 65 years.

Internet Searchers: Summary of Findings at a Glance

Cite this publication: Deborah Fallows. “Search Engine Users.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (January 23, 2005) http://www.pewinternet.org/2005/01/23/search-engine-users/, accessed on July 22, 2014.