Pew/Internet Study Finds Most Americans Get Their Answers From The Internet

A PEW/Internet and American Life study out today finds that the place Americans turn to most for answers is the internet. The study, which surveyed 2,796 Americans, found that 76% have internet access and that 58% turn to the internet when they have questions about things like health, school, careers, and government issues. The project focused on how people use the internet, libraries, and government resources when they need to solve problems and found that those without high-speed internet access (no access or dial-up only) were less satisfied with their ability to get the answers they were seeking.

Overall, people tend to consult two to three sources for information and are generally satisfied with the results. 77% of internet users (55% of Americans) have high-speed access; whereas 18% are still on dial-up. The speed of access seems to make a big difference in whether a searcher turns to the internet or some other source for answers. Those with broadband access spend more time online and are happier with their online experiences. 77% of those with broadband access at home used the internet for answers, compared to 57% of those with dial-up access.

Below, more findings on internet usage, particularly in researching health and government-related issues.

The study had some interesting finding about internet usage in general, particularly regarding demographics. Of those surveyed, 76% use the internet. Of those internet users:

  • 59% go online at least once a day from home
  • 43% go online at least once a day from work
  • 77% have high-speed access

The study also found that “Gen Y” (those 18-30) are the most likely to turn to the library, although in many cases, they are using the library for its free internet resources. 65% of those overall who turned to the library for help said they did so for internet usage (vs. 58% who said they went for access to reference books). Gen Y are also the group most likely to turn to the internet for answers: 76% of them, vs. 35% of those 62 to 73.

Not unexpectedly, younger, wealthier, and more educated Americans are the groups most likely to have internet access. In the 18-30 group, 91% have access, vs. 29% over those over 71. 91% of those in households earning over $40,000 have access; whereas only 61% of those earning under $40,000 do. 93% of those with college degrees have access, compared to 41% of those without a high school diploma. The study found that age is the strongest predictor of access, followed by income and education. No other demographic signals seemed to have influence.

The Search For Medical Answers The study looked at several types of issues, including health. It’s one of the topics that online Americans turn to the internet for most, but also area in which searchers are most concerned about accuracy and privacy. A previous PEW Internet and American Life report found that those with medical problems are particularly likely to go online to get answers. 80% of online Americans have turned to the internet for medical answers and most start with a general search engine, rather than a medical vertical. Jupiter Research reached similar conclusions, finding that 71% of online consumers use search engines to find health-related information. (Although only 46% of those with health issues use the internet to get answers, vs. 83% who seek out a medical professional.)

Medical verticals have been around for a long time (for instance, WebMD), but as more people go online and turn to the internet as source of information, more sites are looking to be the online health resource.

Most searchers start at a major search engine, so it makes sense that they would start providing dedicated health resources. We’ve been hearing about Google Health for a long time, which Marissa Mayer has mentioned may launch in early 2008. So far though, Google has only used Google Co-op to provide OneBox-style refinements to the top of health-related search results.

Google Health Refinement

Microsoft recently launched HealthVault, which enables people to store medical records, as well as search through vetted, frequently refreshed resources.

Microsoft HealthVault

Search engines aren’t the only ones jumping in the health information business. CureHunter, for instance, says its advantage over search engines is that instead of giving searchers “endless piles of links,” it provides “quantified answers” and a “machine second opinion.” Revolution Health, started by AOL founded Steve Case (who was previously involved in another health-related project:, provides medical history management. iMedix is attempting to combine health research with social networking, which is a tricky proposition. There are obvious advantages to sharing health-related information and stories, but fears around privacy could keep people from participating. Overall though, only 19% of those with internet access expressed privacy concerns with researching information online (this number would likely be higher for health-specific information).

Researching Government Resources When people are researching government issues, 66% said they prefer to use the internet. As with health topics, most searchers seem to start with a major search engine rather than a specific government web site. 65% of those who approached the government for help said they were very successful, and while that’s the majority, there’s also a lot of room for improvement. Google in particular has been vocal about working with government agencies to make more information available through its search results.

Most of those surveyed expressed a preference for having government information available online (70% said they expected the government to make information available on the web), although many would also like access to printed materials as well as actual people (by phone and in person) to answer questions. 58% of those surveyed had contacted a government agency within the last year, most often in person. Interestingly, while survey respondents favored the internet for most government-related research, such as for information about benefits or government programs, only 35% said they’d use the internet to find government-powered community information such as about crime, education, or traffic.

Using Libraries One goal of the study was to discover how libraries could better serve the 1/3 of the population without high-speed internet access. Only 13% of those surveyed said they used the public library as a resource for finding information (vs. 16% for television and radio and 36% for newspapers and magazines). However, 53% of respondents said they had visited a library within the last 12 months. The demographic signals that influence internet use (age, income, and education) seem to be a factor in library use as well, with income having the reverse impact on library use from internet use. 17% of those with incomes below $40,000 have sought the library for research vs 9% for those with incomes above this level. (This could because the youngest demographic is most likely to use libraries for problem solving.) Another factor in library visitation is children. 63% of those with children at home visit libraries vs. 48% of those without. Convenience also plays a part. 58% of those with a library nearby has visited it; whereas only 42% of those with no library within 2 miles have.

Library users were most likely to seek answers to school-related issues (20%), followed by career issues (11%). 68% of those who visit libraries use the computers there, and 62% use those computers to access the internet. 69% of library visitors also received help from library staff.

What Helped People The Most? The majority of people said that they were very satisfied with results they received from government agencies (65%), libraries (64%), and the internet (63%). These three resources beat out even the help of experts (61%). The internet provided the most information (although more is not always better, of course). Those with little or no internet access were the least likely to report successful resolution to their questions (54% vs. 63% with high access).

In summary, those with internet access are increasingly using it to seek answers and are generally happy with the information they receive. Since searchers still tend to start with major search engines, the push to include more blended search results, as well as provide help for specialized searches, should continue to improve satisfaction. Libraries can also play a role in making the internet available to more Americans, but have a tough road ahead in making those with little or no access aware of the resources available there.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Google: Health | Search & Society: General | Search Engines: Government Search Engines | Search Engines: Health & Medical Search Engines | Stats: General | Stats: Search Behavior


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

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