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The EXPO 2015 exhibition in Milano, that is coming to a close at the end of October, has concentrated on the future of agriculture and food on our planet. The urgency of these topics is elevated by adverse conditions of climate change (warming) and shortage in water, predicted to worsen further. The EXPO is generally a prime opportunity for countries to promote their nation-brands. This time countries were invited to showcase their advanced scientific and technological capabilities by offering programmes and solutions to overcome environmental and economic challenges of agriculture and food provision.

The supermarket retailer Coop of Italy has yet taken a different direction, within the realm of its business specialisation: Coop Italia proposes at EXPO 2015 its vision of how shopping will be conducted in future supermarkets. They have put on stage a functioning model of a supermarket store (Future Food District / il supermercato del futuro) where detailed product information is displayed on large digital screens and check-out and payment are performed on computer-automated terminals. Almost obviously, such a supermarket will require even fewer human service personnel than met today in the store.

  • Coop Italia covers online (in Italian) a range of aspects such as food retailing, shopping, technology, and the future of food itself.

Coop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (3)

It should be emphasised that the experimental supermarket of Coop at EXPO Milano is not just for demonstration but visitors of the site can practically collect food products into their shopping baskets and purchase them at the end of their trip. In the store’s front and on the upper level a visitor/shopper may find fresh produce and packaged food products displayed on shelves. From there he or she may descend to the lower level to find mostly refrigerated and frozen products. If products were actually selected from the display area, the shopper may go to the self-service scan-and-pay terminals and finalise the purchase (payment can be made by credit and debit cards or in cash).

The prospective format offers, according to Coop Italia, new interactions between consumers, products and producers. Mainly, consumers can observe and read from digital display screens much more information on products and their producers than has been traditionally possible in supermarkets. The screens are hanging usually above shelf cabinets or refrigerators at about head level. When the shopperCoop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (4) points to a particular product’s title and image on the nearest screen, a variety of details in text and graphics, and a larger pictorial image of the product, will appear on screen. Besides the essentials of product name, size measures and price, additional information may be presented on product components and nutritional values (e.g., calories, sugar, salt, fat, protein, fibres), and on its source (e.g., producer company and country of origin). This facility should save shoppers the effort of tearing their eyes while reading small print on product packages, where packaging is relevant at all. The information is also displayed in a more friendly and comprehensible form (e.g., using understandable terms, illustrated visually in graphic charts). These enhancements of the future shopping experience are much about advanced display technology and data visualization.

Occasionally the visitor/shopper may also see some sales statistics and more background on growing and production of the product of interest with emphasis on nutritional and health implications. Coop Italia suggests that presenting more of these kinds of information will give better direction to consumers on preferred or recommended food products in future times (e.g., given new constraints on food provision). Thus Coop connects to the general issue of the future of food at the focus of EXPO 2015.

Coop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (1)

Being on site, the space of the supermarket looked elegant and modern. The large black screens hanging over, positioned in an angle as “\”, definitely signalled a change in the visual scene of the store. It was the first cue to be noticed as to how the future supermarket could be different. The screens were easily discernible but their arrangement was not in any way disturbing to the eye — one could quickly get used to them. Activating the display and viewing information for any chosen product was intriguing and to some extent even entertaining. On one hand it felt like “playing” while shopping, on the other hand it increased interest in products considered, if only for curiosity and not for purchase. The information presented was usually helpful and of practical value for decision-making. Overall, the future supermarket model appeared to enrich the shopping experience.

There were some impediments, however, in practice. Making the screen to display information related to a desired product was not always smooth and easy. It was not clear, for instance, if one should raise a chosen product item up to the screen above or just point towards the image of the relevant product (visitors could be seen trying both). Whatever sensors were supposed to identify the gesture of the shopper’s hand or the product itself, they occasionally were not satisfactorily responsive. Most screens were located on-top so that shoppers could not touch them, and therefore the question was: How do I cause the system to recognize my choice of product. But perhaps it was also a matter of some more training by the shopper to get it right (gamers should have better success with such a system).

Screens on-top and as panels on the door-side of refrigerators

Screens on-top and as panels on the door-side of refrigerators

Additionally, sometimes it felt the information displayed changed too quickly, not giving enough time to review parts of the data provided. Information on each product was usually screened in two or three “shots” (i.e., display of first portion of product information replaced by display of the next portion). Since the shopper has no control of the duration of display, it could be sometimes irritating when, as a shopper, I could not review a data figure of interest in time. But one should remember that usually a shopper is not alone and the same screen may have to serve multiple customers within a few minutes, so a single shopper may be allowed just a brief time to inspect the most needed information. The stress on shoppers might be felt particularly during peak hours of shopping.  Hence, shoppers may benefit from the convenience of viewing information on large screens, but when necessary they should be able to toggle to the private screens on their mobile devices to continue their review of product information.

  • It is noted that Coop Italia provides QR codes for products that shoppers can scan and access the product information on their own devices (and possibly conduct the purchase online).

Regardless of the technology employed, the Coop deserves congratulating for their visually appealing layout and arrangement of product display, and its orderliness and cleanliness. It was evident that great care was invested in setting-up and housekeeping the supermarket. Since this is indeed an experimental stage for the future supermarket, it is reasonable and expected  that work to improve the performance and usability of the technology installed will continue. When it arrives, the younger generations will most likely be prepared for this concept. In summary, the shopping experience ‘nel supermercato del futuro’ was positive and encouraging.

 


How is Coop Italia perceived following its initiative? Naturally, the Coop would expect its Future Food District initiative to have a positive effect on the company’s image. Feedback they received from consumers following their visit of the future supermarket included (most frequent responses, cited from video clip):

  • The Coop demonstrates that it is modern and up-to-date (48%)
  • The Coop demonstrates that it has at heart the future of the planet and its inhabitants (29%)
  • The Coop demonstrates that it keeps in line with the new requirements of consumers (27%)
  • The Coop anticipates the future (19%)
  • The Coop is looking to generate curiosity and interest (13%)

But 16.5% also indicated that the Coop has gone too much ahead of its time, that consumers are not ready yet for all this technology, and 15% argued that the Coop may risk distancing those who are not familiar with the technology. Hence, the technological advances may be welcome, yet it could be too early to implement at this time.

 


The EXPO exhibition in Milano this year was enormous in scope and fascinating; it was well-organised and instructive. All countries presented products and other artefacts, images and models standing for some of their national and cultural assets and symbols,   emphasising, as much as possible for each country, environmental considerations and priorities. The differences in scale between exhibits of countries, however, were striking. There was also large diversity in level of sophistication of presentation, in the technologies used and other display aids applied. In particular, some countries focused more on high-tech techniques while others relied mainly on low-tech features.

Country exhibits hosted in shared-pavilions by theme (e.g., Cacao and chocolate, coffee, rice, bio-Mediterranean, arid zone) were modest; those countries also related  moderately to projects or developments to resolve agricultural and food challenges. But even among smaller exhibits it is unfair to talk of homogeneity because some countries were enlightening exceptions who managed to put up impressive and interesting exhibits.

Countries exhibiting in their own pavilions blended more expansively between their traditional assets and their programmes and technological solutions dedicated specifically to the challenges of future agriculture and food. It must be noted that some pavilions were impressive in their architecture per se. But the country pavilions also proved that size is not everything — diversity in level of effort invested, ingenuity and richness was discernible among those pavilion exhibitions. Furthermore, it also did not seem that variation in quality, originality and interest of exhibits was accounted for merely by differences in economic power or resources.

Israel Pavilion at EXPO 2015: A Vertical Field

Israel Pavilion at EXPO 2015: A Vertical Field

 

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Obama’s administration is taking a bold step in fighting overweight and moreover obesity: requiring chain restaurants and similar food establishments to post information on food calories for their items or dishes on menus and menu boards. The new directive published in November 2014 by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is mandated by the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010. The expectation is that restaurant customers will consider the nutritional values, particularly calories, of  food items on the menu if the information appears in front of them, inducing them to make more healthy choices. It is estimated that Americans consume a third of their calories dining out. But will consumers, who are not voluntarily concerned about healthy dietary, change their eating behaviour away-from-home just because the information is easily and promptly available?

The new requirements of the FDA apply to restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets, including fast food chains — likely a primary target of the new directive. Detail of total calorie content of food items should appear on print menus (e.g., at full-service restaurants) and menu boards positioned above counters for ordering (e.g., at fast-food restaurants). The rule covers meals served at a table or taken to a table by the customer to be consumed, take-away food like pizzas, and food collected at drive-through windows. Also included are sandwiches-made-to-order at a grocery store or delicatessen, coffee-shops, and even ice-cream parlours. (1)

  •  The FDA directive also refers in a separate section to food sold through vending machines by owners or operators of 20 or more machines.

Calorie content in a food item (actually kilocalorie) indicates the amount of energy it provides. Usually the energy intake of consumers from meals, snacks and refreshments is more than the body requires, and the surplus not “burned”   accumulates and adds to body weight. The rule maintains that additional information on components such as calories from total and saturated fat, sodium, carbohydrates, protein, and sugars should be made available on request in writing. Critics could argue that while a summary measure of energy is an important nutritional factor, other nutritional values as those mentioned by the FDA, and more (e.g., fat in grams, Vitamins A and C), also need to be transparent to consumers. Practically, loading menus, and foremost menu boards, with too many nutritional details may be problematic for both business owners and their customers. Therefore, there is logic in focusing on an indicator regarded of higher priority. Nonetheless, restaurants should offer a supplementary menu with greater nutritional values to customers who are interested. Again, the question is how many customers will request and use that extra information.

The food service industry overall reacted positively to the new rules. The National Restaurant Association in the US (representing 990,000 restaurant and food-service outlets) is satisfied with the way the FDA has addressed its major concerns. Contention remains over food sold in amusements parks and cinemas, and regarding fresh sandwiches and salads and ready-to-eat meals made by supermarkets for individual consumers (i.e., single-serving). In fact,  several restaurant chains have already been displaying nutritional information on menus voluntarily for several years to cater for more health-conscious customers and improve their retail-brand image (e.g., Starbucks, McDonalds, Subway). Some chains also provide detailed nutrition information and assistant tools for customers to plan their meals on the chains’ websites. It should further be noted that regulations for posting nutrition information in food-service establishments are in place at the level of local authorities in various cities and counties across the US. Business and regional administrative initiatives are not new in the US as well as in Canada and other countries. However, such measures will be obligatory in the US at a country-level within a year ahead.

Consumers are likely to have some general guidelines (a schema of rules) in memory that they can consult on what is more or less healthy to eat and how much to eat of different items (e.g., “high levels of calories, fat and salt in hamburgers and french fries”, “cream cakes are rich with calories and sugar”). When arriving to a restaurant or coffee-shop, the more conscious consumer may apply those guidelines to compose one’s meal with greater care for his or her health. Yet, the ability to extract accurate nutrition values of food items offered on the menu is likely to be rather limited — our memory is not accurate and retrieving information may also be biased by prior goals or hypotheses. Even if we consider only total calories, we would recall gross estimates or value ranges for general food categories. Consumers furthermore tend to take into account only the alternatives explicitly presented and attribute information available on them in a choice setting (a “context effect”). Information not provided (e.g., has to be retrieved from memory) is likely to be ignored. Customers anxious enough may pull out a mobile device and look up some more accurate nutritional information from an app or a website of the company or a third-party source. But for most consumers, it should appear, there is strong logic as well as justification to provide the nutrition information on specific food items easily accessible at the food outlet to allow them to consider it on-the-spot in their choices.

A probable cause of resistance from consumers to take into account the nutritional content of the food they are about to order is that this might spoil their pleasure of eating the meal.  People commonly prefer to concentrate on which items to order that will be more enjoyable for them on a given occasion. The negative nutritional consequences of the desired food could be considered as ‘cost’, just like monetary price and perhaps even worse, a notion consumers would like to avoid. There is also a prevailing belief that healthier food is less tasty. To make consumers more receptive they would have to be persuaded beforehand that this belief is false or that nutritional components have both positive and negative consequences to consider. Surely consumers have to account for constraints on their preferences; health advocates have to help and ease any barriers to embracing health constraints, or turn pre-conceived constraints into consumers’ own preferences.

We may gain another insight into consumer food choices by considering the comparisons consumers utilise to make decisions. Simonson, Bettman, Kramer and Payne (2013) offer a new integrative perspective on the selection and effect of comparisons when making judgements and choice decisions — how consumers select the comparisons they rely upon vis-à-vis those they ignore, and what information is used in the process. They propose that the comparisons consumers seek have first to be perceived relevant and acceptable responses to the task (e.g., compatible with a goal); these comparisons fall within the task’s Latitude of Acceptance (LOA). They also need to be justifiable. Then, consumers will prefer to rely upon comparisons that are cognitively easier to perform (i.e., greater comparison fluency), given the information available on options. Importantly, even if bottom-up evidence suggests that certain comparisons require less effort to apply, these will be rejected unless they are instrumental for completing the task. Information factors that can facilitate the comparison between options may affect, however, which comparisons consumers perform among those included in the LOA. The following are factors suggested by the researchers that increase the probability that a comparison will be performed: attribute values that can be applied “as-is” and do not need additional calculation or transformation (i.e., “concreteness effect”); alignable input (i.e., values stated in the same units); information perceptually salient; and yet also information that can generate immediate, affective responses. (2)

Let us examine possible implications. Suppose that you visit a grill bar-restaurant of a large known chain. You have to choose the food composition of your meal, keeping with one or more of the following personal goals: (a) “not leave hungry” (satiated); (b) pleasure or enjoyment (taste/quality); (c) “eat healthy” (nutrition); (d) “spend as little as possible” (cost). Calorie values are stated on menu in a column next to price. If the primary goal is to keep a healthy diet you would most likely use calorie information to compare options. However, if “eat healthy” is not a valued goal for you, there is greater chance that calorie information will be ignored — even if values of calories are very easy to read-out, assess and compare. They may be perceived as distraction from considering and comparing, for instance, the ingredients of items that would determine your enjoyment from different food options. Consumers often have a combination of goals in mind, and thus if your goals are nutrition and price, there is an advantage to displaying numeric calorie and price values next to each other across items. It would be more difficult to weigh-in calories with information on ingredients that should predict enjoyment or satiation as your goals. Therefore, it can be important to display nutritional values in a format that facilitates comparison, and not provide too many values. Yet, if “eat healthy” is not one’s goal all those measures are unlikely to have much effect on choice.

  • Some would argue that a salient perceptual stimulus can trigger consumer response in the desired direction even unconsciously. That is a matter for debate — according to the viewpoint above strong perceptual or affective stimuli will not be influential if the consumer’s goal is driving him in another direction.
  • Given the growing awareness to health, justifying decisions based on calories to others may be received more favourably. Can this be enough to induce consumers to incorporate a nutrition comparison in their decision when it is not their personal goal?

A research study performed by the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) examined consumer response to display of nutrition information in food service establishments, comparing between fast-food and full-service chain restaurants. The researchers (Gregory, Rahkovsky, & Anekwe, 2014) show that consumers who see nutrition information have a greater tendency to use it during choice-making in full-service restaurants; overall, women are more sensitive to such information than men (especially using it in fast-food restaurants). Furthermore, they provide support that consumers who are already more conscious and care about a healthful diet are more likely to react positively to nutrition information in restaurants:

  • Consumers who inspect always or most of the time the nutrition labeling on food products purchased in a store (enforced in the US for more than twenty years) are more likely to see and then use the nutrition information presented in full-service restaurants (notably, 76% of those who inspect the store-food labeling regularly use the information seen in the restaurant versus 18% of those who rarely or never use the labeling on store-food).
  • Additionally, the researchers find that a Healthy Eating Index score (measuring habitude to using nutrition information and keeping a healthy diet) is positively correlated with intention to use nutrition information in fast-food or full-service restaurants (those who would often or sometimes use the information in full-service restaurants score 57-54 versus those who would use it rarely or never who score 50 on a scale of 1 to 100).

Gregory and his colleagues at USDA-ERS argue that following these findings, displaying nutrition information on menus at food-away-from-home establishments may not be enough to motivate consumers not already caring about healthful diet to read and use that information — “It may be too optimistic to expect that, after implementation of the nutrition disclosure law, consumers who have not previously used nutrition information or have shown little desire to use it in the future will adopt healthier diets.”

A research study in Canada involved an interesting comparison between two hospital cafeterias, a ‘control’ cafeteria that displays limited nutrition information on menu boards and an ‘intervention’ cafeteria that operates an enhanced programme displaying nutrition information in different formats plus educational materials (Vanderlee and Hammond, 2014). The research was based on interviews with cafeteria patrons. A significantly higher proportion of participants in the ‘intervention’ cafeteria reported noticing nutrition information (80%) than in the ‘control’ cafeteria (36%). However, among those noticing it, similar proportions (33% vs. 30%, respectively) stated that the information influenced their item choices. Hospital staff were more alert and responsive to the information than visitors to the hospital and patients. This research also indicates that customers who use more frequently nutrition labels on pre-packaged food products are also more likely to perceive themselves being influenced by such information.

Vanderlee and Hammond subsequently found lower estimated levels of calories, fat and sodium in the food consumed in the ‘intervention’ cafeteria than the ‘control’ cafeteria (using secondary information on nutrition content of food items). In particular, customers at the ‘intervention’ cafeteria who specifically reported being influenced by the information consumed less energy (calories).(3)

Actions to consider: Fast-food restaurants may place menus with extended nutrition information, beyond calories, on or next to the counter where customers stand for ordering. Full-service restaurants may place extended menus on tables, or at least a card inviting customers to request such a menu from the waiter. It may be advisable to add one more nutrition value next to calories as a standard (e.g., sugars because of the rise in diabetes and the health complications it may cause). Notwithstanding, full-service restaurants could be allowed to implement the rule during the day (e.g., for business lunch), but in the evening spare customers the pleasure of dining-out as entertainment without worries. Nonetheless, menus with nutrition information should always be available on request.

Nutrition information displayed on menus and menu-boards can indeed help consumers in restaurants, coffee-shops etc., to make more healthy food choices, but it is likely to help mostly those who are already health-conscious and in habit of caring about their healthful diet. Information clearly displayed has a good chance to be noticed; yet, educating and motivating consumers to apply it for a healthier diet should start at home, in school, and in the media. A classic saying applies here: You can lead a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink. Nutrition information may be a welcome aid for those who want to eat more healthy but it is less likely to make those who do not care about healthful diet beforehand to use the information in the expected manner.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Overview of FDA Labeling Requirements for Restaurants, Similar Food Retail Establishments and Vending Machines, The Federal Food and Drug Administration (US), November 2014 http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm248732.htm; Also see: “US Introduces Menu Labeling Standards for Chain Restaurants”, Reuters, 24 Nov. 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/25/usa-health-menus-idUSL2N0TE1KP20141125

(2) Comparison Selection: An Approach to the Study of Consumer Judgment and Choice; Itamar Simonson, James R. Bettman, Thomas Karamer, & John W. Payne, 2013; Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23 (1), pp. 137-149

(3) Does Nutrition Information on Menus Impact Food Choice: Comparisons Across Two Hopital Cafeterias; Lana Vanderlee and David Hammond, 2013; Public Health Nutrition, 10p, DOI: 10.1017/S136898001300164X. http://www.davidhammond.ca/Old%20Website/Publication%20new/2013%20Menu%20Labeling%20(Vanderlee%20&%20Hammond).pdf; Also see: “Nutrition Information Noticed in Restaurants If on Menu”; Roger Collier; Canadian Medical Association Journal, 3 Aug., 2013 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3735740/

 

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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)[1].

  • 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)[2]. 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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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 [6]. 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 [7]. (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)

Notes:

(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). 

 

         

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