Search Engine Users Dislike Personalized Search But Like the Results

A recent search engine user study shares insight into current search trends and user desires, revealing just how people feel about targeted advertising, personal data collection, and the quality of search results. However, it also highlights an apparent disconnect between what users say they want and what they actually expect.

Fully 91 percent of respondents to Pew Internet’s Search Engine Use 2012 survey say they always or most of the time find the information they are seeking when they use search engines. 73 percent say that most or all the information they find as they use search engines is accurate and trustworthy, while 55 percent claim that, in their experience, the quality of search results is getting better over time. Just 4 percent say results quality has gotten worse.


In fact, reading through the full set of results, users seem happy as clams with the current state of search overall, with Google unsurprisingly being named the favorite search engine by 83 percent search engine users. Yahoo was second with a measly 6 percent – interestingly, Bing wasn’t even mentioned.

The report also paints another picture, though, as it illustrates a serious lack of understanding by users as to just how those ever-improving and relevant search results come to be.

Users Appreciate Relevant Search Results But Disapprove of User Tracking

The majority of users polled believe “it’s a BAD thing if a search engine collects information about your searches and then uses it to rank your future search results, because it may limit the information you get online and what search results you see.” However, among this same set of survey respondent users, 86 percent said they have learned something new or important that really helped them or increased their knowledge.

In January of this year, the Ask Your Target Market (AYTM) Google Search survey showed that 45 percent of respondents felt that Google’s search results shouldn’t be personalized based on past searches and information from social networking sites. Another 39.1 percent said they liked the idea of personalized searches, but were worried about privacy. Those who said no, said they think everyone should see the same results when searching for the same keyword.

This belief that search engines shouldn’t track and shouldn’t personalize just doesn’t jive with the need for exactly that, as demonstrated by the market.

Search Personalization = Relevance, Whether We Like It or Not

Pew Internet has collected search engine user data for more than a decade and report that currently, users are more satisfied than ever with the quality of search results. In recent years, the increasing relevancy and accuracy of search results paired to user queries is inarguably largely due to the increasingly personalized nature of results.

It is important to note that tracking and personalization are happening on several different levels, many of which users may not be aware of.

Google, for example, has been using contextual signals to offer up more relevant results since 2005. At the most basic level, user data provides context by sharing with the engine a user’s geographic location and language, for example. Contextual signals might also include search history stored in cookies for up to 180 days, according to a Google blog post on personalization.

Signed-in web search and social network data offers a second, more in-depth level of personalization; this is where the point of contention lies for many users. Even if you sign out of Google, for example, stored cookies still share your web history and results are personalized to some extent.

It’s not clear from the results of this survey whether users are uncomfortable with search engines tracking them signed out through cookies or signed in through social activity. Both have been issues of concern recently.

Clearly, users worry about their privacy. If you read my posts often, you’ll know that I’m one of them, and often one of the more vocal. However, what we have here is a bit of virtual NIMBY-ism.

Not In My Back Yard

The demand for search services that better serve the needs of the individual user without any additional risk or exposure to that person reeks of NIMBY. It’s comparable to the wind power war currently raging in Ontario; most people want cleaner power sources and even more would be unwilling to give up their hydro service for the greater good. How would we power our needs and conveniences? Yet no one wants a windmill installed in their neighborhood.

Similarly, internet users want more information hand-delivered to them and they want it instantly. We live in a culture where the need for timely, accurate, accessible information is unquenchable. Last month, we looked at a Twitter study called Who Gives a Tweet, where researchers found that even when users had chosen to follow specific accounts, they found almost two-thirds of tweets not worthwhile. The platform is different, but the user goal is the same: content discovery.and information retrieval.

In February 2012, 73 percent of all Americans used a search engine. 59 percent do so daily. Among the complaints surfaced in the report:

  • 41 percent said they had gotten conflicting information in search results and were not able to figure out which was correct
  • 34 percent found that critical information was missing from search results

While the debates around privacy and tracking rage on, the fact of the matter is that the search engines are answering the need for timely access to the most relevant information. They are using the most effective method they’ve found to date: personalization, whether at the broader contextual or more focused user history or social level. And we like it. We might not approve of how they’re doing it, but are we willing to give up higher quality results over our privacy objections? So far, it seems we are not.

Users don’t seem to understand that the search engine and advertising companies’ (often the same entities) need for MOARRR user data is in response to the users’ demand for more relevant organic results and advertising.

We Can’t Have It Both Ways

Taking user feelings, worries and emotion completely out of the equation, we are left with some indisputable facts.

  • Online advertising is working. EMarketer predicts U.S. search advertising spend will reach $19.51 billion in 2012. Google alone made $37.9 billion in 2011, 96 percent of which came from advertising.
  • People are buying more online. E-commerce sales reached $194.3 billion in 2011, a 16.1 percent increase over 2010.
  • In February 2012, 73 percent of all Americans used a search engine. 59 percent do so daily.
  • 38 percent of Pew Internet respondents reported they had gotten so much information in a set of results that they feel overwhelmed.

Users are telling the search engines with our ad clicks, page views, queries, and online purchases, that we demand the right information for us, right now.

Without downplaying any of the privacy concerns, which are very real and warrant a closer look at search engine privacy practices, how much stock can we put into user sentiment that personalization is bad when our actions say it is just oh so good?

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