Despite recent reports touting the satisfaction of Internet users when it comes to search engines, a new study released by PEW/Internet reveals that most consumers know very little about how search engines work and where the results they publish come from.

The study shows that 44% of searchers only use one search engine and less than half use two or three on a regular basis. While this bodes well for the future success of the major players like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, it further confirms how important it is for site owners to target their search marketing efforts on just a few engines. Search remains a powerful force in the Internet community however with an average of 56% of Internet users visiting a search engine daily.

What I found most surprising was that surveyed individuals use search engines sparingly. Almost half of Internet users say they use search engines just a couple of times a week and nearly two thirds claim they could stop using search engines tomorrow without it significantly impacting their lives. As one of those Internet junkies that lives and breathes search engines, I can't imagine where I'd be without them. On a daily basis I find myself heading to Google or Yahoo! or a topic specific search engine like the Internet Movie Database to satisfy some little bit of trivia floating around in my head. Search engines have put so much information within a few keystrokes reach that I find it hard to believe that any regular Internet users hasn't already become highly dependant on them.

When it comes to quality of search results and where those results come from, few searchers understand what they are dealing with. The survey revealed that search engine users have high levels of trust in their engines of choice, despite having very little idea about how companies can buy their way into the listings. Nearly 40% of surveyed users had no idea that some engines run both organic (natural) and sponsored (paid) search results. At the same time, half of all respondents claimed they would stop using a search engine if they thought an engine was using paid listings without clearly designating those listing as such and 68% of users felt that search engines are fair and unbiased sources of information.

The study also showed that while 92% of search engine users are confident about their searching abilities, only 17% of users stated that they "always" found the information they were looking for. This clearly shows that both the search engines and Web site owners have a ways to go when it comes to presenting accurate search results and quality Web content.

Part of the results stem from the fact that the Internet and search engines are still a relatively new form of technology. Unlike radio, television and print ads, search engine advertising has only been around for a few years. Given time, search engine users may be able to tell an ad from a true search result as easily as they distinguish infomercials from actual television shows. For now, just 1 in 6 Internet searches felt that they could consistently tell the difference between paid and organic listings.

The full study can be downloaded from the Pew/Internet Web site.

Discuss these findings in the Small Business Ideas forum.
January 25, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Most Search Engine Users Still Naive