March 23, 2005

No Search Engine Can Answer My Question

In January, the Pew Internet Project reported that only 38% of American internet searchers were aware of the distinction between paid (aka sponsored) and unpaid (aka organic) search results, which are both served up to them in the results pages of major search engines.

Within a month, a headline claiming “Brits Search Smarter than Yanks” caught our attention. Robin Langford reported in NetImperative that a Swiss online marketing firm, Agence Virtuelle, found in their survey that 93% of Brits are aware of the difference between paid and unpaid results.

Why the big discrepancy, we wondered. Robin Langford told me he was reporting from Agence Virtuelle’s “headline figures” and offered to share the raw data with me when he received it. Shortly thereafter, Agence Virtuelle told him that the firm couldn’t deliver the full figures after all, because they included “sensitive marketing data.” Officials invited him to come back to them with his specific questions.

Meanwhile, I pursued Agence Virtuelle on my own, and was assured by return email, that they received my query about their survey and would get back to me right away: “L’un de nos collaborateurs prendra contact avec vous dans les plus brefs délais.”

It has been three weeks since that reply and I have not yet heard from the firm.

Here are some of my guesses about the difference in findings. It could very well be that the difference arose from the way the British and American questions were worded. And, I know that the administration of the surveys was very different. Our findings came from a nationwide, representative phone survey. Theirs was done over the web, by Tickbox, a British online survey company, which registers respondents and offers chances to win prizes in exchange for taking their surveys. The difference also might reflect differences in the respondent base. Ours covered all adults, 18 years and older; theirs covered those who are at minimum 16 years old. And I saw no claims about their respondent base being representative.

Finally, I suppose, there is the possibility that the British are just really smart about search. Perhaps we will eventually know the reason.