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Search Engine Users Look Less For Sex, Entertainment

People are looking less for sexually oriented material on the Web and more for business information, a new Penn State-led study says.

At the same time, researchers found that Web users aren’t spending the time they need to get quality information and that Web designers may need to develop a new generation of search engines.

The study is the latest of three led by Amanda Spink, associate professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State, that examined the behavior of 200,000 users of the Excite Web search engine. The results were published in the March edition of IEEE Computer. Data were compared from 1997, 1999 and 2001 to track trends in search topics and in search behavior.

Spink, a faculty member of the School of Information Sciences and Technology, collaborated with Bernard J. Jansen, U.S. Army War College; Dietmar Wolfram, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Tefko Sacacevic, Rutgers University.

The researchers found that as the scope of information on the World Wide Web is changing, the topics that people are searching for are changing as well. Over the period of the study, from 1997 to 2001, Excite users shifted from searches about entertainment and sex to searches for information on business and travel.

In this major benchmark study, a random sample of sites was classified into 11 general topic categories. From 1997 to 2001, categories such as “Entertainment or Recreation” and “Sex and Pornography” moved down the list.

Specifically, in 1997, approximately one in six Web queries was about sex. By 2001, the ratio was down to one in 12, and many of these queries related not to pornography but to human sexuality.

The study showed that over time, searches in the area of “Commerce, Travel, Employment, or Economy” and “People, Places or Things” ranked closer to the top.

The shift to e-commerce queries coincided with an 80 percent increase of commercial content on Web servers by 1999.

This study also found changes in the behavior of people who use search engines. Users may be getting less patient, the researchers say, and are willing to view fewer Web sites retrieved through searches. An Excite results page contains 10 websites ranked according to apparent relevance to the information being sought.

In 1997, less than 30 percent of Excite users examined only one page of results per query. By 2001, the percentage of single-page searches ballooned to more than 50 percent. Furthermore, it was found that 70 percent of Excite users wouldn’t go beyond two pages of results.

“This suggests that Excite users want more relevant websites per total number of sites retrieved,” Spink says. “Our results indicate that a significant percentage of users continue to have low tolerance for wading through large retrievals.”

Spink and her colleagues encourage Web users to develop more effective searches.

“Many people tend to take the first thing they get, no matter what the quality,” she says. “To solve information problems and seek information effectively via these search engines, users need to spend more time. From other studies we see that users jump on and off the Web search engines in little spurts, many times on the same topic.”

The current state of the art in search engine design also may be partly to blame for the inefficiencies, the research team says.

“We believe there is a need for a whole new generation of Web search tools, one that is grounded in a more thorough understanding of human-computer interaction that is evidenced today,” Spink says.

(Editor's Note: We wonder how different the results of this study would have been had it been based on searches with Google, the search engine that is rapidly becoming the most popular, and that presents fewer but more relevant results than its competition. And we suspect that Google users, perhaps more knowledgeable about the search engine world than the average, search in a more efficient manner.)

[Contact: Charles DuBois, A'ndrea Elyse Messer]






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