Are Web Searchers Getting Better

Some new research coming out of the University of Indiana in Bloomington suggests that search engine users are improving their results as evidenced by their use of more search terms. This would seem to contradict earlier research that indicates that 6 out of 10 search engine users never use more than one word in their searches. This new study was designed to determine if a true “Googlearchy” exists. This refers to a popular notion that engines that rank results by the popularity of sites provide inherently unfair results because they favor the most popular sites and help them to grow even more popular, which may prevent far better sites from being retrieved in search results.

So the researchers set up a study where they examined the results obtained by two different types of searchers, those who only used search engines and those who browsed without search engines, instead following links from one page to another. So what happened?

[The researchers] expected the real-world data to fall somewhere between the two extremes: targeted searching and haphazard surfing. Instead, it turned out that typical Web use — presumably a combination of searching and surfing — concentrated less on popular Web sites than either model had predicted. In other words, real-world Web searching does not fuel the Googlearchy nor does it keep less-popular sites from being found.

The researchers said the outcome appears to be based on the trend that:

more and more people are searching for more specific information. If someone submits a general query, say, “bird flu,” the results at the top of a search-engine’s results page will indeed list high-traffic websites, for example, the Centers for Disease Control site. And that site’s popularity will be reinforced. But Web searches are becoming increasingly more complex, according to Menczer. A search for “bird flu Turkey 2005″ will bring up far fewer results, and lead to more obscure pages.

So I’m questioning if searchers really are getting more sophisticated in the way they do their searches? I still tend to see many of our students using just one word or typing in rather long, formally structured sentences (usually something taken right out of an assignment). Of course, other researchers questioned the results of the Indiana studying, suggesting there were some issues with the data used and whether the searchers in the study really represented average Internet searchers. Those issues aside, as academic librarians we should be eager to promote the gist of the research findings. As one of the researchers put it, “the message here is that as soon as you become a slightly more sophisticated searcher, then you’re breaking the spell of the Web,” meaning that when you take the time to develop a more thoughtful search strategy you take greater control over the search results rather than just settling for the most popular sites that an engine like Google spits back. And even if we can convince students about the benefits of using a more sophisticated search (i.e., more than one word), we still need to contend with earlier studies that indicate only 3% of searchers tie words together with quote marks, and a mere 1% use other advanced search techniques to get better results. Just another reason why a little user education could go a long way towards helping our user communities get better, less biased search results.

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