A new nationwide survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that Internet users are extremely positive about search engines and the experiences they have when searching the Internet. But these same satisfied Internet users are generally unsophisticated about why and how they use search engines. They are also strikingly unaware of how search engines operate and how they present their results.
Some of the survey's highlights:
"Internet users are very comfortable as searchers, partly because they set themselves up so it's difficult to fail," says Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow at the Pew Internet& American Life Project and author of the report. She notes that lists of the most popular searches for 2004 show that such searching is dominated by popular culture, news events, trends and seasonal topics - all areas in which searches are sure to return reasonable results. For example, Google's top query for 2004 was "Britney Spears." AOL listed "horoscopes," and Yahoo! listed "American Idol."
Internet users behave conservatively as searchers: They tend to settle quickly on a single search engine and then stick with it, rather than switching as search technology evolves or comparing results from different search systems. Some 44% of searchers regularly use just one engine, and another 48% use just two or three. Nearly half of searchers use a search engines no more than a few times a week, and two-thirds say they could walk away from search engines without upsetting their lives very much.
Internet users trust their favorite search engines, but few say they are aware of the financial incentives that affect how search engines perform and how they present their search results.
Only 38% of users are aware of the distinction between paid or "sponsored" results and unpaid results. And only one in six say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not. This finding is ironic, since nearly half of all users say they would stop using search engines if they thought engines were not being clear about how they presented paid results.
"In a sense, many search engine users are a little bit like kids with a fancy new toy: They want to go play with it immediately and have a good time, but most don't want to read the instructions or much care to know how it works," says Fallows.
For all the popularity and enthusiasm about search engines, the majority of users show only halfhearted commitment to using them. A full half of Internetsearchers say that while they like search engines, they could return to other ways of finding information. Another 17% say they wouldn't miss them at all.
But about one third of Internet searchers, 32%, say they can't live without search engines. They are a different breed of searcher-a more high-powered group who work the engines harder and more seriously. They are more likely to be: male, young, better educated, of higher income, and to have been online for more years than others. Compared with other users, they search more often and they search for more information that they consider important to them. They consider themselves more successful and more confident at searching. They also know more about the workings of search engines: they have heard about the distinction between paid and unpaid results and they are more likely to be able to distinguish between the two types.
"Search engines seem to be working for everyone," says Fallows. "The large group of naïve searchers is happy because they easily find quick answers to easy questions; the smaller group of sophisticated searchers is happy because they know what to expect of search engines and how to use them smartly."
There are some interesting differences among different demographics of search engine users: Men are more likely to use search engines than women, and they use them more often. While men show more confidence in their search abilities than women, this isn't connected to more successful searching; men and women consider themselves equally successful in the searches they conduct.
The younger the Internet user, the more active and engaged he is likely to be as a searcher. Compared with other users, the youngest searchers, those under 30 years old, are more likely: to conduct searches, to search more often, to consider themselves confident and successful in their searching, and to rely on search engines. By contrast, older users are less likely to place trust in their search engines and more likely to have a clear dividing line for the ethics of search engine practices. The older the user, the less likely he is to agree with the concept of having paid or sponsored results. Correspondingly, the oldest users seem the least comfortable with sorting out the ways search engines present these distinctions on their search results pages.
The Pew Internet& American Life Project is a non-partisan, non-profit initiative of the Pew Research Center that is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to examine the social impact of the Internet. The Project does not take positions on policy issues.