As of January 2015, Google had 88% of searchers using its search engine, with Yahoo! and Bing trailing at 4% and 4.5% respectively, according to Statista.com. With more and more users, particularly millennials, making searches from mobile phones, a greater percentage of market share is coming from phones and tablets. Google on average takes in over 5.5 billion search requests a day, from laptops and mobile devices alike. That’s a lot of searching. But given the expanse of the internet, how do most users navigate through the troves of information brought up by these search engines? From psychology to basic preferences and familiarity with the web, many factors shape the web searching experience. So if you’re curious as to why and how you might be searching the web, and how to perhaps make more efficient and relevant searches, read on.
Human Wayfinding: Getting right into the science of information searching, let’s take a look at something called “wayfinding”. Wayfinding happens when you travel, browse the web or Facebook stalk someone. You rely on local knowledge, things you know and that are in front of/around you, to get to where you need to go or get the information you want. You take steps to get from place to place in order to reach your final destination. For example, in Wikipedia, you can click on links to different articles. If you start on a page about fruit and want to get to pesticides, you might click on “agriculture” which takes you to “farming tools” and then finally “pesticides” (I just made this up, so if these articles don’t exist in that order, don’t blame me!). Based on research from Bob West at Stanford University, a person tasked with reaching a particular article when started on a particular page was able to get there with an average of 3.2 clicks, and a maximum of 9 clicks. Through some analysis, it was found that people use two techniques when searching: navigating to “hubs” and looking for similarity to the topic. Hubs of information are more general pages that may contain lots of information able for perusing – sort of like a search engine or a website that is about the topic you are searching for, with many pages on specific information. Once you navigate to a hub, then you look for familiar and similar information to what you want. A search engine may try and do this for you, but ultimately people have their own filter for looking at relevant websites. That’s more of a personally cultivated taste, so we’ll get into that in the next section. In the end though, people are pretty good about filtering and searching for information. They’re willing to click around a few times to get where they want to go, although less clicks are usually better to keep younger searchers’ attention spans.
Website Relevance and Credibility: Search engines show web page titles, the website name and a brief description of the page (if there is one). Using these three pieces of information, people go about a careful filtering process when deciding whether or not to click on a site. The familiarity of the page title being presented does a lot – if a web page title matches the user’s search query closely, they are more likely to click on it. Next, people scan the website title and description. If the website domain name is something relevant, people will continue to read the description of the website; otherwise, it’s pretty easy to dismiss a site that sounds irrelevant or spammy. Finally, when reading the description of the page, people again look for matching of their query to the information. The more overlap with the searched topic and more specific a page may be, the more likely people will click it.
Tips for Searching: Now that you know how people search, how can you search more effectively? One way is to limit the kind of information you get back after a search request. If you need academic material, try using Google Scholar. If you want to locate a particular nonprofit, look only for websites that end in .org, using advanced search features that all major search engines have.
If you have a very specific search term you want to match, put it in quotes in the search bar of your preferred browser, and you’ll get back results that only have the exact keywords you typed in. Exclude a word by putting a hyphen (-) in front of it, if you know that it may show up with your search terms. Don’t be afraid to click through a few websites to get information (who knows what you’ll find along the way!) but don’t click more than 5 times, otherwise the chances of you finding information that you want goes down dramatically. And if you really don’t like the results you’re getting, try a different search engine – they have different algorithms that provide different results!