Alertbox April 2011
Users' Search Skills
Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, April 11, 2011:
Incompetent Research Skills Curb Users' Problem
increasingly rely on individual pages listed by search engines instead
of finding better ways to tackle problems.
some analysts questioned the finding of search dominance, it's a user
behavior that gets stronger every year. Today, many users are so reliant
on search that it's undermining their problem-solving abilities.
Ironically, the better search gets, the more dangerous it gets as people
increasingly assume that whatever the search engine coughs up must be
One recent study participant referred to "my old
friend Google" as the place to go when given a task =97 a remarkable
indication of how closely people are tied to search these
During our user testing in Asia-Pacific last month,
I watched users conduct more than 100 searches for a broad range of
tasks. Only once did I see a user change strategy.
rarity of strategy shifts, we'd need much more data to precisely
estimate how often they happen. In this round of user research, our goal
was to update the Fundamental Guidelines for Web Usability seminar, so
we focused on website design, not on search engine statistics.
rough estimate from our available data is obvious: users change search
strategy only 1% of the time; 99% of the time they plod along a single
unwavering path. Whether the true number is 2% or 0.5%, the big-picture
conclusion is the same: users have extraordinarily inadequate research
skills when it comes to solving problems on the Web.
In our study,
for example, an interior decorator indiscriminately entered queries into
any text box that caught her eye, with no understanding of which search
system she was using or whether it was searching the entire Web or only
the site she was on.
This example offers a striking case of confused
mental models. It also highlights a big problem with search today: it
doesn't facilitate any conceptual knowledge because it relies on quick
in-out dips into websites.
Changing Research Strategy: An
Our recent research yielded only a single positive
case study. In it, our test participant was trying to discover whether a
friend had a cold or influenza given various symptoms (such as a sore
At first, the user searched for
symptoms, describing them in various ways. These simple query
reformulations don't count as a strategy change because they were
essentially variants on a single approach. (Without watching hours of
video, I can't say exactly how many users in our study changed the
phrasing of their general queries, but it was fairly common =97 about
10-20% of the time.)
Searching for symptoms was a singularly unfruitful
approach. Our user was swamped with a progression of quack sites
describing various superstitions and homemade remedies. Most of these
were quite well-meaning discussion groups and patient support sites, but
the content definitely didn't represent current medical science or
It's sad to think of the vast number of patients who
get misleading medical guidance from the Internet because the main
search engines currently prioritize popular sites instead of useful
After a while, the user realized he was getting
nowhere by searching for symptoms. He thus reversed his research
strategy and started searching for the diseases, hoping to identify and
differentiate symptoms between the two. This was much more successful;
he found several reputable medical sites with decent symptom
Advanced Search: Not Used
participant was a lawyer who was preparing a presentation about the
implications of a controversial court decision that had been handed down
a few months prior to the study session. His goal was to find out what
other experts had said about the decision.
Searching for various keywords that described the case, the lawyer
easily found many sites with pertinent information, including news media
coverage, blog discussions, and whitepapers from other law firms.
However, almost all of these were written when the ruling came out and
contained no analysis of the decision's long-term repercussions. They
basically stated the decision and why it was good and/or bad.
users never go beyond the first search engine results page (SERP), our
poor user waded through many pages of SERP listings, demonstrating a
valiant desire to find newer coverage.
Considering that his main
criterion was recency, our user could have chosen a much easier
approach: using an advanced search to filter the results by date.
However, he never did so. (Remember, this was a lawyer =97 a highly
educated person who regularly manages large amounts of information.
Average users would have been in an even worse situation.)
we almost never see people use advanced search. And when they do, they
typically use it wrong =97 partly because they use it so rarely that
they never really learn how it works.
The lessons are clear:
that advanced search will help your website; you might build such
features, but people will use them only in exceptional cases.
Spend the vast majority of your resources on
improving regular search (simple search).
One-Track Research Strategy: An Example
The sidebar details an example
of a user expending substantial effort with little result because she
didn't modify her research strategy. The user racked up 22 pageviews
across 8 different sites (including the search engine) trying to find
the most populous city in the world. She did find an answer, but decided
on it for the wrong reasons and without understanding the underlying
problem =97 that there are two ways of counting city populations: with
and without suburbs.
This outcome is all the
more striking because the user was a schoolteacher who emphasized the
need to teach students to critically evaluate online information
Some users simply take the first answer they stumble
across and run with it. But more careful users =97 like the teacher in
this example =97 usually end up spending more time without much more
benefit because they're limited by the search engine results.
several widely diverging estimates of "biggest city" (ranging from 12
million to 34 million people), it would have been reasonable to change
the research strategy and try to find an authoritative site on the topic
of urban populations. Such a shift would likely have provided more
insight than relying on the simplified lists posted on many sites that
specialize in other topics and don't explain how they derive their
Search Is Too Good
The problem in the above
examples =97 and for many other users in our recent tests =97 is that
search engines are turning into "answer engines." Users are being
trained to limit themselves to pages included in the SERP listing.
Indeed, for many problems, the actual answer is right there. But the
concept that you might have to sometimes go beyond search listings is
For many problems, there are
better approaches than simply scrolling to the bottom of the SERP. You
might, for example, try to locate a site that specializes in the
problem. Or =97 as in our cold/flu symptom problem =97 you might simply
change the way you think about the problem.
Sadly, when one approach is so
easy (and works much of the time), users never develop the research
skills needed to try or even consider other approaches.
What can we
do about this?
For today's Web design projects, we must design for
the way the world is, not the way we wish it were. This means accepting
search dominance, and trying to help users with poor research skills.
For example, sites listing city populations could state explicitly that
there are two ways to estimate population, rather than simply offer a
single estimate without further explanation. And proper medical sites
could design pages for how patients search for information, rather than
for how doctors think about it.
In the long
term, we should try to improve the world rather than design to suit its
shortcomings. One example of how we might do this is to teach better
Internet research skills in schools.
Mental models and the design lessons from psychology
will be discussed in the full-day seminar on The Human Mind and
Usability at the annual Usability Week conference.
The conference also has a 2-day seminar on Writing
for the Web. The seminar on Web Page Design discusses how you can help
users who arrive through deep links instead of through your
> Other Alertbox columns (complete
> Sign up for newsletter that
will notify you of new Alertboxes
2011 by Jakob Nielsen. ISSN 1548-5552