March 9, 2012

Search Engine Use 2012

Washington (March 9, 2012) – Search engines remain popular—and users are more satisfied than ever with the quality of search results—but many are anxious about the collection of personal information by search engines and other websites and say they do not like the idea of personalized search results or targeted advertising.

On personalized search:

  • 73% of search users supported a statement that they would not be okay with a search engine keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future search results because they feel it is an invasion of privacy; 23% say they supported a statement that it is okay with a search engine keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future search results, even if it means they are gathering information about users.
  • 65% of search users supported a statement that it’s a bad thing if a search engine collected information about their searches and then used it to rank future search results, because it may limit the information they get online and what search results they see; 29% backed a statement that it is a good thing if a search engine collected information about their searches and then used it to rank future search results, because it gives results that are more relevant.

On targeted advertising:

  • 68% of internet users agree with a statement that they are not okay with targeted advertising because they don’t like having their online behavior tracked and analyzed; 28% backed a statement that they are okay with targeted advertising because it means they see advertisements and get information about things they are really interested in.

These findings come from a February 2012 Pew Internet Project survey, which finds that 91% of online adults use search engines to find information on the web, including 59% of those who do so on any given day.

Though they generally do not support targeted search or ads, these users report very positive outcomes when it comes to the quality of information search provides, and more positive than negative experiences using search:

  • 91% of search engine users say they always or most of the time find the information they are seeking when they use search engines
  • 86% of search engines users learned something new or important that really helped them or increased their knowledge
  • 73% of search engine users say that most or all the information they find as they use search engines is accurate and trustworthy
  • 66% of search engine users say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information
  • 50% of search engines users found a really obscure fact or piece of information they thought they would not be able to find

“Search engines are increasingly important to people in their navigation of information spaces, but users are generally uncomfortable with the idea of their search histories being used to target information to them,” said Kristen Purcell, Pew Internet associate director for research and author of the report. “A clear majority of searchers say that they feel that search engines keeping track of search history is an invasion of privacy, and they also worry about their search results being limited to what’s deemed relevant to them.

These findings arise as policy debates about privacy, collection of personal information online, and targeted advertising are heating up. In particular, Google’s new privacy policy allows for the collection of information about an individual’s online behavior on any of Google’s sites (including its search engine, Google+ social networking site, YouTube video-sharing site, and Gmail) into a combined and cohesive user profile, alerting marketers to which products may appeal to specific individuals.

Some privacy and consumer advocates argue that many consumers do not want to have personal information about them collected and that the profiling process is often confusing to consumers, who don’t know how they are being tracked and what profiling procedures determine what ads they see.

The Pew Internet survey finds that 38% of online adults say they are aware of ways to limit how much personal information websites can collect about them. Of those who are aware of ways to limit data collection, some of the popular tactics include: 81% delete their web history, 75% use the privacy settings of websites to control what’s captured about them, and 65% change their browser settings to limit the information that is collected.  

“Many people express concerns about targeted search and ads, but most internet users don’t have a sense that they can take steps to limit the amount of personal information that is captured and used by search engines and websites,” said Joanna Brenner, Pew Internet web coordinator and report co-author.

Other key findings in the report:

  • Asked which search engine they use most often, 83% of search users say Google
  • Half of adult search users (52%) say search results have gotten more relevant and useful over time
  • 56% of searchers say they are very confident in their search abilities
  • Younger search users (age 18-29) tend to view the practice of search engines collecting information about them more favorably than older search users
  • Online men are significantly more likely than women to report knowing ways to limit how much personal information websites can collect about them (42% vs. 35%)