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Old 01-24-2005   #1
Chris Sherman
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How Searchers View Search Engines

A new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that 92% of search engine users are confident in their searching skills, with more than 87% saying they are successful in finding what they're looking for most of the time. However, nearly two-thirds lack even a basic awareness of the difference between natural and paid search results. And guess what--more than 50% say they would stop using search engines if they felt the engines weren't being clear about how they presented paid results.

Today's SearchDay article, Survey: Searchers are Confident, Satisfied & Clueless, takes a closer look at this fascinating survey and some other findings that surfaced about searcher attitudes.

Comments welcome!
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Old 01-24-2005   #2
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Infomercials vs television

Thanks Chris for the interesting article. Another version was forwarded to me a few minutes ago, which provides essentially the "Cliff's Notes" of your article.

I worry that people will become more and more wary of commercials. If only they could understand that sponsored listings have to be approved as relevant!
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Old 01-25-2005   #3
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Usability is always a good idea

Insofar as even a good sponsored listing gets only a CTR of 1-3%, typically, people already are wary of the ads. But they will continue to click on them if they're relevant IMHO.

Although I don't entirely trust the numbers on how many people understand the difference between the ads and the real links -- a combination of people's stated understandings with a behavioral analysis of how they actually search would work better, I think -- it's likely that people will become more savvy about the different listing formats and what is and isn't paid for. It just takes time, as it did with other media.

I think that the user becoming more aware of the ins and outs of search (and ads) is a positive thing, not a threat.

Seriously, though, these numbers are very questionable. I defy anyone to take average 'net user X and sit them down in front of a screenful of Google SERP's and ask "which are the regular web search results and which are the ads?" and find out how many point to the right-hand margin which has (much smaller/narrower) listings set off with white space, a vertical line, and the words "sponsored links."

In that scenario, 80% would get it right, I'm sure. Of the remaining 20%, half would have said "huh?" to your question because they don't even "understand what a web is" or "know what searching is."

But if you word a question in such a way that the user is likely to say "I'm so confused," or "I'll bet those big bad media companies are trying to confuse me, so I'll agree," you'll get a bunch of responses in the affirmative.

Imagine asking 100 people if they knew an infomercial was an infomercial. A few graduate students with an ax to grind might say "gee, I'm confused," but 90% of the remainder of the respondents would of course say "I know what an infomercial is," because only an idiot doesn't know what an infomercial is.

Surveys like this should not be used as ammunition for government agencies to come in and overzealously "protect" the public from imagined threats. Reasonable disclosure is a must, but you can't protect silly people from themselves, and you shouldn't try.
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Old 01-26-2005   #4
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It just takes time, as it did with other media.
I'm not convinced it's happened yet with other media. As I read this article, I was thinking "it's the same with TV -- how many people understand the differences between infomercials and regular programming? how many understand why the main character is holding a Pepsi instead of a Coke?" And what about the occasional local news piece that masquerades as a story, but is really just advertising? There've been too many TV stations getting caught in that scenario the past few years, but Joe Public has no idea as he sits in front of the toob. He thinks he knows, though.

So I'd tend to agree with the conclusion, that search has become a public institution and could use some regulation as to how editorial vs paid content is presented. It's about time.
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Old 01-27-2005   #5
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I've never met a Joe Public that was as stupid as we'd like to think he is. I'm never going to base my actions or trend-thinking on some doofus who is incapable of distinguishing between a real TV show and Kevin Trudeau hawking magic lip balm or some spandexed individuals swinging their legs on exercise equipment.

Granted, many businesses like to operate on the assumption that people are clueless, don't have math skills, etc. After all, how else would you sell a lottery ticket, a night playing the slots, a confusing cellphone plan, or a Range Rover on credit to someone making $32,000 a year?

My personal credo I suppose is informed by the dilemmas of "how do you teach a really tough university class to students who are there for all different reasons." The answer was always "teach to the B student." That way you can elevate the standard for the C students, and treat the few remaining D's and A's individually as special cases. And as for the F's, you have to write them off.

Going online is like a "really tough class." I think you have to expect the C's to come up to the "B" level eventually, but we won't get there if we lower our expectations of people to read basic documentation and educate themselves.
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