Real-Life Search Study

ACCORDING TO A PEW INTERNET & American Life Project survey, 45 percent of Internet users–about 60 million Americans–say that the Web helped them make big decisions or deal with major episodes in their lives in the previous two years. The survey also found that only 5 percent said the information they found was misleading.

The obvious implication here is that people are searching to find critical information. And remarkably, their satisfaction is very high. Recently I conducted a highly informal study, tracking a colleague’s search habits for one week, to confirm or refute what the survey is telling us. To protect his privacy and pride, I’ll refer to him as “Subject 20-Something.” It’s important to note that he does not work in the search industry, and would be considered a moderate search user who owns a connected PDA.

For this study, I tracked what, when and why he searched. At this point, you’re probably saying, what is the reasoning behind this otherwise meaningless information? Why do I care what some random person searched for last week? The answer is actually plain and simple. I wanted to find out if, for a regular person, search was top of mind when presented with a problem or challenge of some sort. Ultimately the goal was to determine if he thinks to use search for even the most basic of questions.

He was asked to log his searches on a simple spreadsheet. The log included: summary of problem/challenge, keyword, search engine used, time of day, what machine (desktop/laptop/PDA) and top line results of his experience. Lastly, Subject 20-Something was asked to apply a rating to the overall experience (A, B, C, D or F). Plusses and minuses were also accepted.

Summary of some the searches conducted:

Tom Cruise–found Was searching because “Tom just gets on my nerves.” Search was conducted at home late at night (opens up many other questions that we will not address in this article). Result: very pleased with Overall, good experience. Rating = B+

Honeymoon–looked up hot spots in Costa Rica. Started with a specific area in the country; found results less than satisfying. Refined his search to a specific hotel and found several mentions on message boards from people who had stayed there previously. Conducted at work (busy Subject 20-Something, huh?). Result: excellent. Ended up booking the hotel based on other people’s comments. Rating = B

Homer Simpson–conversation about an old episode with a colleague at work prompted this tag-team search query. The duo attempted to find a clip of Homer singing “Oh Margie, you came and you brought me a turkey.” Again, obviously not very busy at work. Result: found video clip immediately. Rating = A+

Taxes–used Yahoo search on his Treo to find to find closest post office open at 10 p.m. on April 17 to accept late tax filings. While able to think on his feet in a pressing situation regarding Uncle Sam, it seems Subject 20-Something not only slacks at work, but is also a procrastinator. Rating = A- (his comment: “traffic patterns for post office would have helped!”)–Subject 20-Something was searching to find out the asking price of a house in his neighborhood. Searched for a specific address and the keyword “home for sale” and reached after sifting through “lots” of different results pages. Site was great but difficult to find. Rating = C+ (“real estate listings seem to have way too much spam.”)

Free music–don’t tell Tommy Mottola, but Subject 20-Something still looks and finds free music that is not available through commercial channels. Searched for Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” acoustic and scored on the first try. Various versions were available, in addition to the one 20-Something chose. Result: excellent. Rating = A+ (nothing beats the ability to “rock” for free).

Old flames–“no, not former high school sweethearts,” claimed 20-Something. In fact he was researching former co-workers. By searching by exact name match he was able to track down two former 9-to-5ers that he had lost contact with for several years. Result, above average. Rating = B+ (turns out one of the co-workers now is vice president at a direct competitor of 20-Something’s company, likely making double his salary).

Study Results Summary: Clearly search has now reached into the fabric of everyday life in terms of usefulness (at least for this 20-something subject). With the advent of mobile connectivity users can search whenever, wherever.

None of this is blockbuster news to the search community, but what is news is that search is now used in many different ways beyond our industry. It provides instant gratification and can piggyback on other media/influencers. Sure, there are certain verticals that result in more relevant listings than others (his travel queries were deemed completely useless until he changed his search to find message boards) and there are obvious advantages to those with constant access to the Internet.

But this gives a glimpse into what is quickly becoming a phenomenon. It’s beyond just the ability to find info on a bungalow in Costa Rica and a clip of Homer Simpson singing. It’s beyond the ability to find a house from an aerial view, and at the same time make sure it’s not near an ex-girlfriend. It’s beyond saving a few bucks on a song and getting taxes in on time. It is about remembering that the tools are there to use–and taking the steps to use them. In that respect, it looks like the Pew Study got it right.