Do you regularly use Google’s Wonder Wheel? How about SearchWiki, Yahoo Correlator or Search Monkey? I’m guessing about 95% of you said no. And you’re no ordinary group of searchers . In terms of search literacy, you’d be ranking in the top 0.1% of the population. In a randomly assembled group of 1000 people, you’d stand out as the expert on web search. It’s the reason you actually take time out of your day to read a column on search behavior. Believe me, normal people don’t read this stuff.
Even Geeks don’t tweak search
I like all of the above search refinements. They make the user experience better. And when it comes to being a search behavior geek, I’m even geekier than you. But I have to confess something. I don’t use any of them. Nary a filter, an advanced query, nor a Boolean operator can be seen in my search history. My searches are plain vanilla, boring, ridiculously simple. The way I use Google is not so different than the way my mother uses it, and she just got her first computer two years ago. Her definition of advanced video gaming is Freecell.
Google just introduced a whole new batch of search functionality, including Wonder Wheel. Together, they can dramatically increase the power of Google to help you narrow in on exactly what you’re looking for. Yet all this functionality will never be used by the vast majority of users. The same is true for the advanced customization available on Yahoo! Expect similar filtering and functionality on the new flavor of search coming soon from Microsoft. So, the question is, if we never use it, why do they build it?
Googling Google on Google
Let’s start with the first part: Why do we never use it? It’s a question with two possible answers: digital literacy and digital diligence. Let’s talk literacy first.
People in the search marketing industry constantly make fun of all those stupid users who search for search engines on search engines. I’ve been in the business for well over a decade now and it’s a running joke: “Look at all those helpless fools who Google “Google” on Google.” Guess what? It’s no joke. It’s the way people navigate the web. It’s not that they’re brain dead. It’s that they’re brain “efficient.” They’re operating on autopilot, saving the intellectual horsepower for more important tasks. It’s only now that Google diligently captures every search and reports on our aggregated activity that we realize how silly our online navigation habits look in retrospect.
I never realized how reliant the average web user was on Google for navigation until I built a website for my daughter’s elementary school. On the day I pushed the site live, I was going back and forth with the principal to make some last minute changes. I had just published the site and checked to make sure it was available online. When all looked good, I sent a quick email to the principal to let her know it was live. A few minutes later I got an email from her saying she couldn’t get to the site. I checked again. Everything looked fine on my end. Thinking she might have to clear her cache to get rid of the under construction page and knowing that she was relatively new to online, I got on the phone to walk her through it. It took about 5 minutes before I realized what the problem was. She was trying to navigate to it through Google. She knew no other way to get to sites. The site was 20 minutes old. Google’s efficient, and I know a little bit about site optimization, but neither of us was that good. St. Joseph’s Elementary was non-existent as far as Google was concerned, and that was the only path the principal knew to take.
Navigating by search
I thought this was isolated, but one week later I was talking to my Mom. Turns out she navigated the same way. So did my step dad. And my aunt. I started asking around. Turns out most people I know navigate the web through search. So we started asking that question in surveys. It appears my circle of family and friends weren’t unique in that. Here’s one recent example. In a recent survey of B2B buyers, we asked them how they would get to a site they already knew. 55% said they would get there through search, either by going directly to a search engine or through a tool bar. I suspect there’s a self reported bias there: I think the number’s even higher. This is huge for marketers. If I’m ordering copy paper that I always order through Staples.com, chances are better than 50% that I’ll get there through a search engine.
The vast majority of people who use search do so because it’s easy. Google and competitors have managed to provide the easiest path to most things we’re looking for. And because they’ve done that well, everyone knows Google. But unless you’re in the industry, you don’t spend a lot of time wondering about advanced search options. It’s not a topic of conversation at the office. My teenage daughter is not burrowed away in her room, texting all her friends about Google’s Wonder Wheel. Fact is, almost everyone else in the world looks at search the same way they look at electricity: they don’t care what makes it work, but it damn well better work when they need it.
Don’t expect us to think while we search
For Google, there’s a good new/bad news side to this. Searching is a habit. We don’t think, we just “query” in the nearest available box. This translates into massive search volume. That’s the good news. That’s also the bad news. We don’t think. Which means all that lovely functionality the engines work so hard on will never be used, because it represents a detour on the quickest path to our objective. Google knows this. That’s why all that wonderful functionality is hidden behind a small blue “options” link tucked away in the upper left corner, well out of the visual path of 99.9 percent of search users.
And that brings us to digital diligence. We will only work as hard as we have to to find information, Peter Pirolli’s Information Foraging Theory says we use the same equation to track down information that we use to track down food: The investment should always be less than the reward. If we burned more calories finding food than we received from the food, we wouldn’t last long. There are no calories involved in information, and we burn precious few using Google, but the principle is still the same. Search is a utility, not something we invest time in just for the hell of it. As fun as Search Monkey or Wonder Wheel might be for us search geeks, it’s not something the 99.9 % of “normal” people would ever use. They’re too busy doing “normal” things, such as watching Dancing with the Stars.
So what about searching for serendipity, the example that commonly gets brought up every time I talk about the utility of search? What about using search just to explore the online world, open to discovering whatever we might find? Wonder Wheel’s graphic interface based on semantic clustering would be just the ticket for that, wouldn’t it?
You know, I use search a lot. I use a search engine dozens of times per day, on average. And in a month, I doubt I launch even one serendipitous search. I just don’t explore the web that way. The odd time an interesting listing I didn’t expect might distract me, but I seldom start out with that intent. I might cast the search net wide, or I might be specific and navigational, but in both cases, Google does a pretty good job most times. And based on the rule of marginal value, pretty good is good enough to keep me coming back to the Google “patch” and not worry about finding something better.
Despite all this, I don’t think search is solved yet. I agree with the common wisdom that we’re still early in the game and search has a long way to go. Both the front end of search that we touch and the functionality that lies behind have barely begun to evolve. But that evolution depends on giving us better results without asking us to do anything more as users. No more filters, no more clicks, no more advanced search options. There will always be those searchers that appreciate that, but in this normal distribution curve, they’re definitely the outliers.
Which brings us back to the original question. If the vast majority of us don’t use the extra functionality, why do the engines keep building it? Because, just like everything, search is a Darwinian game. And next time we meet here in Just Behave land, you 0.1 percent of the population who actually care about such things, that’s what we’ll be talking about.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.