The vast majority of searchers say they are confident about their searching skills and are successful at finding what they’re looking for far more often than not, yet most don’t understand how search engines work or present results.
A new survey from the Pew Internet & American Life project presents some remarkable—and somewhat disturbing findings about the self-perceptions of search engine users. The survey is a much more comprehensive look at searcher behavior than the July 2002 Pew survey, and also differs in findings from the Keynote survey of searcher behavior that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.
Unlike the Keynote study, which was based on observation and questioning of people as they searched, the Pew survey was conducted by telephone among a sample of 2,200 adults. Among the key findings:
- 84% of online American adults have used search engines. That amounts to 108 million people. On any given day, 56% of those online use search engines. No surprise here—we know from Jupiter Research and other sources that searching is the second most popular online activity, just behind email.
- 92% of those who use search engines say they are confident about their searching abilities, with over half of them, 52%, saying they are “very confident.”
- 87% of online searchers say they have successful search experiences most of the time, including 17% of users who say they always find the information for which they are looking.
- 55% of searchers say about half the information they search for is trivial, and half is important to them.
- 50% of searchers say they like search engines but 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.
- 68% of searchers say that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information; 19% say they don’t trust search engines.
What makes searchers so confident in their own abilities? “The majority are doing simple searches,” said Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the report. “It’s very easy and very quick to get an answer for a passing thought, and that leads to confidence. It’s pretty hard to fail for a lot of kinds of searches people do.”
This leads most people to trust search engines as a reliable source of information. However, the survey also found that nearly two-thirds of users are unaware of the distinction between paid and unpaid results, and only one in six say they can always distinguish sponsored links from organic listings (the survey asked only about sponsored listings, not paid inclusion links).
Many are also apparently confused about what’s really going on with search engines, because nearly half of all users said they would stop using search engines if they thought engines were not being clear about how they presented paid results.
The report raises but does not answer questions about the quality of information found by searchers. It cites another study (PDF link) done at Wellesley University that found students would stop researching at the first answer found rather than examining multiple sources.
Are searchers being lulled into a false sense of “success” because searching is so easy, with search engines faithfully providing results for virtually any type of query?
Fallows says that other research done by Pew suggests that searchers aren’t as critical of online information as they should be. “There’s still some element of magic if it’s there on the internet,” she said, noting that people can actually be at risk when relying on health or financial information from an unknown or unreliable source.
People who trust search engines tend to search less often, are more likely to use a single engine, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, feel they are more successful than frequent searchers, according to the survey. This suggests that as people gain experience with search engines, they also develop critical thinking skills that can help them avoid low quality or deceptive information.
The survey also found demographic differences among search engine users. Young users tend to be more frequent searchers, are more confident in their searching skills and also trust search engines more than older people.
More men use search engines than women, and men search more often than women. Men tend to have a higher opinion of their own searching abilities despite being no more successful than women in finding information. Men also tend to stick to a single engine, while women have several favorites.
“Most users are still in elementary school with where they are about using the internet and search engines,” said Fallows. “As they grow up it will dawn on them to try different search engines, not just the one of convenience or habit.”
Growing Up into Public Institutions
The conclusion of the report touches briefly on an ethical concern surfaced by the findings:
“This odd situation, in which a growing population of users relies on technology most of them don’t understand, highlights the responsibility placed on search engine companies. They are businesses, in many cases extremely successful ones—but their effects on society are far more than merely commercial. One unexpected implication of our study is that search engines are attaining the status of other institutions—legal, medical, educational, governmental, journalistic—whose performance the public judges by unusually high standards, because the public is unusually reliant on them for principled performance.”
A fundamental difference between search engines and these other institutions is that to one degree or another, public institutions are regulated or governed by laws that define and limit the scope of their activities. Search engines are not governed or restricted in similar ways—at least yet. Should they be?
Fallows says that the point wasn’t to advocate any particular position. Rather, it was to raise awareness of just how important and influential search engines have become to society. “I’d rather see search engines, which are private companies, just behave with fairness and integrity,” said Fallows. “I’d certainly rather see the marketplace work.”
The full report offers additional commentary and interpretation of the findings of the search engine survey, and also references a number of similar studies that have been done over the past few years. It’s an excellent and informative read—highly recommended for anyone who wants deeper insights into the minds of search engine users.
Pew Search Engine Users Survey
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