There can hardly be a doubt that Internet users would be lost and unable to exploit the riches of information in the World Wide Web (WWW), and the Internet overall, without the aid of search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo!, Bing). Anytime information is needed on a new concept or in an unfamiliar topic, one turns to a search engine for help. Users search for information for various purposes in different spheres of life — formal and informal education, professional work, shopping, entertainment, and others. While on some tasks the relevant piece of information can be quickly retrieved from a single source chosen from the results list, oftentimes a rushed search that relies on results in immediate sight is simply not enough.
And yet users of Web search engines, as revealed in research on their behaviour, tend to consider only results that appear on the first page (a page usually includes ten results). They may limit their search task even further by focusing on just the first “top” results that can be viewed on the screen, without scrolling down to the bottom of the first page. Users then also tend to proceed to view only a few webpages by clicking their links on the results list (usually up to five results).
Research in this field is based mostly on analysis of query logs, but researchers also apply lab experiments and observation of users in-person while performing search tasks.
Internet users refrain from going through results pages and stop short of exploring information sources located on subsequent pages that are nonetheless potentially relevant and helpful. It is important, however, to distinguish between search purposes, because not for every type of search looking farther than the first page is necessary and beneficial. Firstly, our interest is in a class of informational search whose purpose in general is to learn about a topic (other recognized categories are navigational search and transactional / resource search). Secondly, we may distinguish between a search for more specific information and a search for learning more broadly about a topic. The goal of a directed search is to obtain information regarding a particular fact or a list of facts (e.g., UK’s prime minister in 1973, state secretaries of the US in the 20th century). Although it is likely we could find answers to such questions from a single source (e.g., Wikipedia), found on the first page of results, it is advisable to verify the information with a couple of additional sources; but that usually would be sufficient. An undirected search, on the other hand, is aimed to learn more broadly about a topic (e.g., the life and work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, online shopping behaviour). The latter type of search is our main focus since in this case ending a search too soon can be the more damaging and harmful to our learning or knowledge acquisition . This may also be true for other types of informational search identified by Rose and Levinson, namely advice seeking and obtaining a list of sources to consult .
With respect to Internet users especially in the role of consumers, and to their shopping activities, a special class of topical search is associated with learning about products and services (e.g., features and attributes, goals and uses, limitations and risks, expert reviews and advice). Negative consequences of inadequate learning in this case may be salient economically or experientially to consumers (though perhaps not as serious for our knowledgebase compared with other domains of education).
The problem starts even before the stage of screening and evaluating information based on its actual content. That is, the problem is not of selectively choosing sources that appear reliable or their information seems relevant and interesting; it is neither of selectively favouring information that supports our prior beliefs and opinions (i.e., a confirmation bias). The problem has to do with the tendency of people to consider and apply only that portion of information that is put in front of them. Daniel Kahneman pointedly labeled this human propensity WYSIATI — What You See Is All There Is — in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow . Its roots may be traced to the availability heuristic which deals with the tendency of people to rely on the exemplars of a category presented, or ease of accessing the first category instances from one’s memory, in order to make judgements about frequency or probability of categories and events. The heuristic’s effect extends also to error in assessing size (e.g., using only the first items of a data series to assess its total size or sum). However, WYSIATI should better be viewed in the wider context of a distinction explained and elaborated by Kahneman between what he refers to as System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is intuitive and quick-to-respond whereas System 2 is more thougthful and deliberate. While System 2 is effortful, System 1 puts as little effort as possible to make a judgement or reach a conclusion. System 1 is essentially associative (i.e., it draws on quick associations that come to mind), but it consequently also tends to jump to conclusions. System 2 on the other hand is more critical and specialises in asking questions and seeking more required information (e.g., for solving a problem). WYSIATI is due to System 1 and can be particularly linked with other possible fallacies related to this system of fast thinking (e.g., representativeness, reliance on ‘low numbers’ or insufficient data). Albeit, the slow thinking System 2 is lazy — it does not hurry to intervene, and even when it is activated on the call of System 1 often enough it only attempts to follow and justify the latter’s fast conclusions . We need to enforce our will in order to make our System 2 think harder and improve where necessary on poorly-based judgements made by System 1.
Several implications of WYSIATI when using a Web search engine become apparent. It is appealing to follow a directive which says: the search results you see is all there is. It is in the power of System 1 to tell users when utilising a search engine: there is no need to look further — consider links to search hits immediately accessible on the first page, preferably seen on the screen from top of the page, perhaps scroll down to its bottom. Users should pause to ask if the information proposed is sufficient or they need to look for more input.
- Positioning a “ruler” at the bottom of any page with page numbers and a Next button that searchers can click-through to proceed to additional pages (e.g., Google) is not helpful in this regard — such a ruler should be placed also at the top of a page to encourage or remind users to check subsequent pages, whether or not one observes all the results on a given page.
Two major issues in employing sources of information are relevance and credibility of their content. A user can take advantage of the text snippet quoted from a webpage under the hyperlinked heading of each result in order to initially assess if it is relevant enough to enter the website. It is more difficult, however, to judge the credibility of websites as information sources, and operators of search engines may not be doing enough to help their users in this respect. Lewandowski is critical of an over-reliance of search engines on popularity-oriented measures as indicators of quality or credibility to evaluate and rank websites and their webpages. He mentions: the source-domain popularity; click and visit behaviour of webpages; links to the page in other external pages, serving as recommendations; and ratings and “likes” by Internet users . Popularity is not a very reliable, guaranteed indicator of quality (as known for extrinsic cues of perceived quality of products in general). A user of a search engine could be misguided in relying on the first results suggested by the engine in confident belief that they have to be the most credible. Search engines indeed use other criteria for their ranking like text-based tests (important for relevance) and freshness, but with respect to credibility or quality, the position of a webpage in the list of results could be misleading.
- Searchers should consider on their own if the source (company, organization or other entity) is familiar and has good reputation in the relevant field, then judge the content itself. Yet, Lewandowski suggests that search engines should give priority in their ranking and positioning of results to entities that are recognized authorities appreciated for their knowledge and practice in the domain concerned . (Note: It is unverified to what extent search engines indeed use this kind of appraisal as a criterion.)
Furthermore, organic results are not immune to marketing-driven manipulations. Paid advertised links normally appear now on a side bar, at top or bottom of pages, mainly the first one, and they may also be flagged as “ads”. Thus searchers can easily distinguish them and choose how to treat them. Yet, the position of a webpage in the organic results list may be “assisted” by using techniques of search engine optimization (SEO), increasing their frequency of retrieval, for example through popular keywords or tagwords in webpage content or promotional links to the page (non-ads). Users should be careful of satisficing behaviour, relying only on early results, and be willing to look somewhat deeper into the results list on subsequent pages (e.g., at least 3-4 pages, sometimes reach page 10). Surprisingly instructive and helpful information may be found in webpages that appear on later results pages.
- A principal rule of information economics may serve users well: keep browsing results pages and consider links proposed until additional information seems marginally relevant and helpful and does not justify the additional time continuing to browse results. Following this criterion suggests no rule-of-thumb for the number of pages to view — in some cases it may be sufficient to consider two results pages, while in others it could be worth considering even twenty pages.
Another aspect of search behaviour concerns the composition of queries and the transition between search queries during a session. It is important to balance sensibly and efficiently between the number of queries used and the number of results pages viewed on each search trial. Web searchers tend to compose relatively short queries, about 3-4 keywords on average in English (in German queries are 1-2 words long since German includes many composite words). Users make relatively little use of logical operators. However, users update and change queries when they run into difficulty in finding the information they seek. It becomes a problem if they get unsatisfied with a query because they could not find the needed information too shortly. Users also switch between strings of keywords and phrases in natural language. Yet updating the query (e.g., replacing or adding a word) frequently changes the results list only marginally. The answer to a directed search may be found sometimes around the corner, that is, in a webpage whose link appears on the second or third results page. And as said earlier, it is worth checking 2-3 answers or sources before moving on. Therefore, it is wise even to eye-scan the results on 2-4 pages (e.g., based on heading and snippet) before concluding that the query was not accurate or effective enough.
- First, users of Web search engines may apply logical operators to define and focus their area of interest more precisely (as well as other criteria features of advanced search, for example time limits). Additionally, they may try the related query strings suggested by the search engine at the bottom of the first page (e.g., in Google). Users can also refer to special domain databases (e.g., news, images) shown on the top-tab. Yahoo! Search, furthermore, offers on the first page a range of results types from different databases mixed with general Web results. And Google suggests references to academic articles from its Google Scholar database for “academic” queries.
The way Interent users perceive their own experience with search engines can be revealling. In a survey of Pew Research Center on Internet & American Life in 2012, 56% of respondents (adults) expressed strong confidence in their ability to find the information they need by using the service of a search engine and an additional 37% said they were somewhat confident. Also, 29% said they are always able to find the information looked for and 62% said they can find it most of the time, making together a vast majority of 91%. Additionally, American respondents were mostly satisfied with information found, saying that it was accurate and trustworthy (73%), and thought that relevance and quality of results improved over time (50%).
Internet users appear to set themselves modest information goals and become satisfied with the information they gathered, suspectedly too quickly. They may not appreciate enough the possibilties and scope of information that search engines can lead them to, or simply be over-confident in their search skills. As suggested above, a WYSIATI approach could drive searchers of the Web to end their search too soon. They need to make the effort, willingly, to overcome this tendency as the task demands, getting System 2 at work.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
(1) As cited by Dirk Lewandowski (2008), Search Engine User Behaviour: How Can Users Be Guided to Quality Content, Information Service & Use, 28, pp. 261-268 http://eprints.rclis.org/16078/1/ISU2008.pdf ; also see for example research by Bernard J. Jansen and Amanda Spink (2006) on How Are We Searching the World Wide Web.
2) Daniel E. Rose & Danny Levinson (2004), Understanding User Goals in Web Search, ACM WWW Conference, http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/mobasher/classes/csc575/papers/www04–rose.pdf
(3) Dirk Lewandowski (2012), Credibility in Web Search Engines, In Online Credibility and Digital Ethos: Evaluating Computer-Mediated Communication, S. Apostel & M. Fold (Eds.) Hershey, PA: IGI Global (viewed at: http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1208/1208.1011.pdf, 8 July ’14)
(4) Daniel Kahneman (2011), Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin Books.
(5) Ibid. 4.
(6) Ibid. 3
(7) Ibid 1 (Lewandowski 2008).
One thought on “The Problem of Ending a Web Search Too Soon, and Some Remedies”
As a compulsive Google searcher, I can easily relate to this excellent article. My personal experience has taught me not to always rely on the top results of the search. Sometimes, a real trove, can be found further down the list.