Have you ever Googled for a shrimp curry recipe? Exclaimed “Yahoo!” when you found the complete discography of your favorite Scandinavian-folk-rap artist? Did you Ask Jeeves why it’s so hard to think of a verb for “MSN Search”? If so, you’re probably one of the 60 million American adults who use search engines daily, according to a recently published study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project and comScore. The comScore data show a jump from 49.3 million daily search engine users in September 2004 to 60.7 million in September 2005 (23%). The study also found that search engine usage is the second most popular online activity, behind email.
The study includes a lot of interesting information, but what stood out to me was the reported increase in the percentage of internet users who use search engines daily. It’s gone from 30% to 41%. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s that low – even keeping in mind that the percentage of users who have ever used search engines is much higher (90%). I believe search engine usage lags behind email for three reasons: 1) using email fulfills a social need and can be a proactive or passive activity, whereas search engine use is strictly proactive; 2) the proliferation of email marketing enables and encourages users to reach desired goods and services by clicking on links within emails; and 3) search engine users don’t reliably get the answers they seek.
The problem of the latter is twofold – no algorithm is perfect (or psychic), and relatively few people understand how to use search query syntax to generate better results. An earlier Pew study found that only 40% of women and 54% of men are “very confident” in their search abilities. And survey of our own analytics data suggests that only a tiny percentage of search engine users employ advanced operators like “quotes” and +word.
Search engines have the potential to be the ultimate embodiment of today’s “on demand” culture. When coupled with broadband connections, they enable us to seek answers, entertainment, news, community, products, and information in mere seconds. Mobile search lets us take those capabilities on the road. Knowledge is power, but knowing how to find knowledge is almost as good.