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Effective Internet Search: Search Help

Improve Your Searches Now!

by Judith Gill

Search engines are becoming the card catalog to the Web.
 - CyberAtlas, March 2003 [1]

Online searching is one of the most important and valued activities on the Internet and search engines are the gateways to access its information. So improving your ability to improve your online search skills to effectively use search engines is more important than ever before. Here are some improvements you can immediately put into practice:

A 2004 Enquiro report [2] describes search engine results pages as a "navigation menu" — "a navigation aid in negotiating the online research interaction, as people continually refer back to it and launch another online exploration from this starting point."
  • Use more than 1 search engine.
  • Enter at least 3 search terms.
  • Refine your queries.
  • Try out advanced search features.
  • Look beyond the first page of search results.
  • Find out how search engines work.
  • Improve your overall search skills.
  1. Use more than 1 search engine

Today's search engines may be capturing as little as 1 percent of the Web, largely because of how they find and index online resources.
- Associated Press, March 2004 [4]

Whether search engines capture one percent  or ten percent of Web content, as some research claims it's self-evident you need to use more than one search engine.

Regardless, most people still employ the same tried and true search engines time and again. Two recent iProspect surveys illustrate this point.


Search Engine Loyalty

User Behavior

2002 2004

Always use the same search engine

52 57

Alternate among several favorites

35 30
Deliberately use different search engines for various types of searches 13 13
Source: iProspect 2002 Search Engine Branding Survey [3] and iProspect 2004 Search Engine User Attitudes [4]

But it's a mistake to rely on a single search engine for all your online searching. Because if there's one big lesson for you in our book, it's that no one search engine can do it all for you — whether you are a rank amateur beginner, an experienced user with sophisticated needs, or you're somewhere in between.

Why? One major reason is that search results vary greatly depending on the search engine used. A case in point: Expert Greg Notess has long studied search engine database overlap, and has consistently found little overlap in the search results they produce — even among their top ten results and for the most popular search terms used. Witness the chart below.

In 2002, for instance, four small searches were run on ten different search engines — AlltheWeb, AltaVista, Direct Hit, Google, HotBot, iWon, MSN, NLResearch, Teoma and Wisenut. Of the 141 unique webpages found:

  • 50% were only discovered by one search engine, and not always the same one.
  • 72% were found by only two search engines.
  • 79% were located by only three.

In other words, there was very little overlap in search results produced by the various search engines studied, and this has been consistently so throughout the years. In fact, one recent study, at searchenginewatch.com/searchday/article.php/3524411 shows that there is more divergence than ever.


Search Engine Overlap

Year Number of Search Engines Studied % Webpages found by 1 Search Engine % Webpages found by 2 Search Engines % Webpages found by 3 Search Engines
2002 10 50 72 79
2000 14 37 63 77
1999 13 46 68 83
1998 5 71 87 96
1997 4 48 74 95
Source: Greg R. Notess, Database Overlap, Search Engine Showdown, 1997-2002 [5]

Suggested strategy: Subject directories, meta search engines, specialized and deep web search engines can all deliver the results you want. They all have the potential to deliver superior search results under certain conditions, as well as complement each other in the search process. The trick is to experiment with a number of search engines:

  • Try some out.
  • Learn how to maximize their abilities by reading search engine Help.
  • Experiment to determine how to use them most appropriately to meet your search needs.
  1. Enter at least 3 search terms

The vast majority of Web searchers use approximately two terms in a query, have two queries per session, do not use complex query syntax, and typically view no more than ten documents from the results list.
- Journal of the American Society of Information and Technology, 2000 [6]

Even though the above study was published in 2000, this would still be an accurate description of user search behavior today. Mondosoft's research [8] is more specific, finding:

  • 52% of searchers only use a single search term.
  • About 30% use two words.
  • Only 2% use more than four words.

Suggested strategy: You can increase the chances of quickly locating your target content by adding more keywords to your search. Specifically:

  • Zero in on important terms likely used in the title of the document, which are given the highest priority in a search engine's logic.
  • Include expected words in a general description of the document, such as its keywords or major subject area.
  • Use important words included in the body text.
  • Try entering the name of the author(s), or sponsoring organization or company, or the name of the newspaper, journal or publisher.
  • Make sure you place the most important words first.
  • Avoid small or unimportant words (e.g., "a", "the", "to") whenever possible.
  1. Refine your queries

The majority of us type in a few top of mind words and hit the search button without giving a lot of thought about how to construct our search query. We tend to take an iterative approach to searching, refining our search based on the results that are returned to us.
- Enquiro, April 2004[7]

The above is how most people search [7], [9]. 2001-02 research indicated when target content was not located:

  • The majority of users abandon their search altogether after the first or second attempt [8], [10], [11], [12], [13].
  • Even if they search more than once, most do not add or delete many terms to their subsequent queries [10].
  • Only 7.5% refine their search with additional keywords when they couldn't obtain satisfactory results [3].

But iProspect's 2004 Survey [4] revealed a significant change in user search behavior:

  • When respondents were dissatisfied with the first three pages of results after an initial search, 91% modified their original queries and retried them using the same search engine, before giving up on that engine to return satisfactory results. This was an increase of 20% over 2002 survey results.
  • iProspect interpreted this to mean that users had more confidence in their selected search engine to formulate queries than in their own abilities.

Suggested strategy: If you don't get the search results you want:

  • Don't give up — don't abandon your search.
  • Try refining it:
    • Add more search terms;
    • Change some of your search words;
    • Use a thesaurus to suggest additional search terms.
  1. Try out advanced search features

Most search queries are very simple and generic in nature. Few people take advantage of extended Boolean search capabilities or other advanced search features.
- Enquiro, April 2004 [7]

Advanced search features typically include the use of Boolean operators, phrased searching, and stemming, for example. They permit the formation of more complex queries, which can lead to improved search results, more quickly.

Research indicates most searchers do not know that search engines offer advanced search features. Therefore, not surprisingly, few use it [6], [7],[9], [10]. For instance, a recent Enquiro study [7] indicated about three-quarters of respondents rarely or never used them, 5% not even knowing what they were. Only 25% reported often or almost always using them.


Advanced Search Feature Use

User Responses

Percentage

Don't know what advanced search is

5%

Never use it

21%
Rarely use it 48%
Often use it 21%
Almost always-always use it 4%
Source: Enquiro, April 2004 [7]

Suggested strategy: As you acquire more knowledge about using search engines and develop more confidence in your search abilities:

  • Start experimenting with advanced search features.
  • For explanations on advanced search features and how to use them:
    • Consult the Help section of your selected search engines;
    • Use the links found on their general search interfaces;
    • Read our book which deals with advanced search features in great depth.
Finding that needle in a haystack
  1. Look beyond the first page of search results

If none of the first ten are any good, what are the chances that the next ten will be any better?
- Mondosoft, July 2002 [8]

Finding the content you want is only half the battle. Getting 20 pages of search results is not helpful either — because the average user won't look at most of it.

Research tells us the majority of web users do not browse beyond the first or second page of results, a common trait shared in both Europe and North America [15], [3], [4], [7], [8], [9], [10], [14].

The average search engine user scrolled through 1.8 result pages during a typical search.
- PEW, August 2004 [15]

For example, in 2003, Consumer WebWatch reported that 88% of result links selected by participants were located on the first page [14]. And when searching for health information, it's even higher. A 2002 British Medical Journal study found that 97% of the time consumers chose a search result ranked among the top 10; in 71% of cases, they selected a link from the top five results [16].

To summarize iProspect's 2004 Survey [4] results below:

  • 23% of search engine users will only look at the first few search results before trying another search.
  • 41% expect to find the answer to their query on the first page of search matches.
  • 67% won't look past the first 2 pages of results.
  • 82% will not read beyond the third page of search results.


Search Engine User Behavior

Search Results Viewed

% of Users % Cumulative Total

First few entries

22.6% 22.6%

1st page of results

18.6% 41.2%
2nd page of results 25.8% 67%
3rd page of results 14.7% 81.7%
More than 3 pages 10.8% 92.5%
Entire list, if not too long 7.4% 99.9%
Source: iProspect 2004 Search Engine User Attitudes Survey [4]

Suggested strategy: The most relevant search results may not be necessarily listed first. It all depends on how your selected search engine gathers data, then indexes, ranks and prioritizes it. Also be aware of paid listings which may or may not be clearly identified, but are generally placed at the top of your search results pages.

If you don't get the search results you want:

  • Start looking past the first page of search results.
  • Preferably consult at least the first three pages.
  • If you still have no luck:
    • Refine your queries;
    • Add more or use different search terms;
    • Try out advanced search features.
  1. Find out how search engines work

Most participants had little understanding of how search engines retrieve Web pages or how they rank or prioritize links on a results page.
- Consumer WebWatch, June 2003 [14]

Every search engine has its own individual method for collecting, cataloging, and retrieving information to answer your queries. Nonetheless, to be a skilful searcher, you must acquire some basic knowledge about how they work. With over three hundred search engines to choose from, this can be a daunting task.

Suggested strategy: Everyone has the same goal when searching — you want the most relevant and authoritative information listed and prioritized to meet your needs. To achieve this, you must have some understanding about the inner workings of search engines. To learn how their ranking and prioritizing technologies work, how they make their money, and how this influences the search results you get:

  1. Improve your overall search skills

People don't want to be spending time searching and looking for things. They want to be spending the time analyzing the information.
- Factiva, 2003 [17]

More than ever before, finding information takes know-how. By increasing your knowledge and improving your online search skills, you can work more successfully with your selected search engine(s) to accurately locate your target content quickly and easily.

Suggested strategy: The search suggestions listed above are practical and you can start implementing them today.


References & Links

  1. CyberAtlas, Search Guiding More Web Activity, Brian Morrissey, March 13 2003: www.clickz.com/stats/big_picture/traffic_patterns/article.php/5931_2109221
  2. Enquiro, Into the Mind of the Searcher, Gord Hotchkiss, February 2004: www.enquiro.com/research.asp
  3. iProspect Search Engine Branding Survey, May 2002: www.iprospect.com/web_site_promotion/press11142002.htm
  4. iProspect Search Engine User Attitudes Survey, March 2004: www.iprospect.com/premiumPDFs/iProspectSurveyComplete.pdf
  5. Search Engine Showdown, Search Engines Statistics: Database Overlap - Little overlap despite database growth, Greg R. Notess, March 6, 2002: www.searchengineshowdown.com/stats/overlap.shtml
  6. Journal of the American Society of Information and Technology, Web User Studies: A Review and Framework for Future Work, B.J. Jansen and U. Pooch, 52(3), p. 235-246, 2000: jimjansen.tripod.com/academic/pubs/wus.html
  7. Enquiro, Search Engine Usage in North America, Gord Hotchkiss, Marina Garrison and Steve Jensen, April 2004: www.enquiro.com/research.asp
  8. Mondosoft, Web Site Usability Metrics: Search Behavior - Search Trends, July 2002: www.mondosoft.com/SearchBehaviorWP.pdf
  9. Florida International University, Things you might not know about how real people search, Marc L. Resnick and Rebeca Lergier, Miami, June 28, 2002: www.searchtools.com/analysis/how-people-search.html
  10. IEEE/CS Computer, From e-Sex to e-Commerce: Web Search Changes,  Amanda Spinks, et al, March 2002: ist.psu.edu/faculty_pages/jjansen/academic/pubs/ieee_computer.pdf
  11. UIETips, People Search Once, Maybe Twice, Jared Spool, November 20, 2001: world.std.com/~uieweb/Articles/search_once.htm
  12. UIETips, Users Don't Learn to Search Better, Jared Spool, November 27, 2001: world.std.com/~uieweb/Articles/not_learn_search.htm
  13. Alertbox, Search: Visible and Simple, Jakob Nielsen, May 13, 2001: www.useit.com/alertbox/20010513.html
  14. Consumer WebWatch, False Oracles: Consumer Reaction to Learning the Truth About How Search Engines Work, Leslie Marable, New York, June 30, 2003: www.consumerwebwatch.org/news/searchengines/index.html
  15. Pew Internet & American Life Project, The popularity and importance of search engines: Pew Internet Project Data Memo, August, 2004: www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Data_Memo_Searchengines.pdf
  16. British Medical Journal (BMJ), How do consumers search for and appraise health information on the world wide web? Qualitative study using focus groups, usability tests, and in-depth interviews, Gunther Eysenbach and Christian Kohler, March 9, 2002, Vol. 324: bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/reprint/324/7337/573.pdf
  17. Factiva, 2003: www.factiva.com/index.asp

FREE SEARCH HELP

On Site Resources

Search Tool Guide

BUY THE BOOK
ABOUT THE BOOK
FAQ's
Audiences
User Benefits
Overview & Contents
Book Excerpts
Awards-Reviews
Updates
OTHER
Contact Us
Authors
Discussion Topics
Sales Affiliates

FREE SEARCH HELP

On Site Resources

Search Tool Guide

BUY THE BOOK
ABOUT THE BOOK
FAQ's
Audiences
User Benefits
Overview & Contents
Book Excerpts
Awards-Reviews
Updates
OTHER
Contact Us
Authors
Discussion Topics
Sales Affiliates

FREE SEARCH HELP

On Site Resources

Search Tool Guide

BUY THE BOOK
ABOUT THE BOOK
FAQ's
Audiences
User Benefits
Overview & Contents
Book Excerpts
Awards-Reviews
Updates
OTHER
Contact Us
Authors
Discussion Topics
Sales Affiliates


Effective Internet Search: E-Searching Made Easy!    Baylin Systems, Inc., 2006