More in Google news

by Eszter Hargittai on April 30, 2004

CT is filled with Google commentary these days, I can’t be left out!:) But since my fellow co-bloggers have provided plenty of interesting reading, I’ll just point to a clip. I used up ten minutes of my 15 yesterday in a live interview on CNNfn’s The Flip Side. Those of you who have been following my related posts and work won’t be surprised to learn that my comments had to do with seach skills and how commercial considerations may influence what people see online. It was a neat experience. And seeing splashed on CNNfn with me on the screen was pretty cool.:)

I thought I’d post some details about the experience below the fold for those who may be curious about how something like this works. I went to CNN’s Chicago studio in the Tribune building. The show is hosted in New York. There is a bit of a time lag in the interview, which makes it a bit awkward at times, but not too clunky. I did not know this until one of the anchors mentioned it.. and then of course noticed it when I watched the show afterwards. However, while in the studio, I did not see anything. There were no monitors present (except for the person operating the camera). I was in a dark room with some bright lights beaming down at me and the camera right in front of me. I was wearing an ear piece in which I heard the show’s anchors. But I couldn’t see anything. It is an interesting experience.

For those still wondering whether there are people left on the planet who do not use Google (despite the data that suggest so), the following anecdotal evidence was well timed. I asked the car driver who took me to the studio and back whether he’s an Internet user and what search engine he uses. He said Yahoo even though he certainly knows about Google and said he sometimes uses that after he’s done with trying things on Yahoo.

Additionally, it has been interesting to see in my referral logs that several people have gotten to my Web site in the last 24 hours by typing into Google’s search box. I’ll reiterate, nonetheless, that my evidence for claiming that lots of people do not know much about online searching is based on in-person observations and interviews with a random sample of Internet users and not simply on anecdotal evidence. Lots of people out there don’t know the difference between a search box and the location or address bar, nor do they know the difference between .com and .gov. And if you are one of these people (that would be possibly .1% of CT readers) then the Web cannot function for you as the kind of resource it may be for many others. If you are interested in more about this, my academic papers give lots more detail.

For more Google blurbs by others, see this list.



Anita Hendersen 04.30.04 at 11:09 pm

Just to follow on the comments in one of your posts a few weeks ago: it is not true that only sophisticated users use Google. I’ve seen more than a few egotistical marketers spew stuff like: “the target viewer for this website is Mrs. Smith, the housewife home using AOL.” When you look at the referring domains for websites, though, you find that Mrs. Smith is more often than not using Google to search (she may use AOL for internet access.) She isn’t using AOL’s search function and she isn’t pressing the “search” button on the browser, despite what the self-styled elite thinks.

This is based on anecdotal evidence and my own experience with site logs. But I’ve seen similar things mentioned by others. When people get into Internet marketing (my field), they are usually in for a surprise. Everyone thinks of Google as the most important engine, but when you first start looking at site logs, it’s ASTONISHING how important it is. In the back of your mind you know about many search engines: Netscape, iWon, Lycos, etc and you figure people use them all. But Google is so dominating it is amazing. It is not an engine for just the elite or the young or the technically savvy. (Granted there is some selection bias here because we tune sites to do well on Google,)

Now, Eszter’s CNN talk wasn’t about that. It was about the lack of search skills among much of the population, and I agree that this is a problem, as is the apparent inability of some people to distinguish paid listings from natural search results. I thought K-12 teachers were addressing some of this. I don’t know what we should do about the rest of the population.

Privacy concerns and the integrity of search engine results have been under focus by activists for a long time now. The IPO may be a chance to bring these concerns to a wider audience.

Google’s so-called “Florida update” in late 2003 was widely derided in the Internet marketing community and suspected to be motivated by commercial considerations. If the conspiracy theories are true, Google made their results less relevant so users would click on the ads and they downgraded for-profit sites in their results because they wanted those site owners to buy ads if they wanted to appear on the first page.

Also, the recent re-design of Google actually makes it less intuitively obvious which listings are ads.

On the other hand, you’ll hear people say things like “it’s all paid”, meaning even natural search results. Whether, or how much, they believe this is not clear – major search engines still return unpaid results ranked by relevance as determined by their changing algorithms.

I do agree that relatively minor changes in search behavior can benefit many users immensely. This would include using multiple words in search queries (instead of only one or two) and quotes where relevant and negative keywords.


eszter 04.30.04 at 11:27 pm

For the record, I don’t recall saying or writing at any time that Google users are all skilled or that people who don’t have advanced skills don’t use Google. There are plenty of people who use Google who do so in a fairly simplistic manner. That’s always been part of my point (although it seems I may not be communicating it clearly).

I recently saw some figures about how an increasing number of queries have more than one term. That factoid in and of itself still doesn’t mean that people are understanding the importance of refining their queries by posting additional information through the use of multiple terms in a query. Lots of concepts, ideas and things by definition include more than one word, e.g. lactose intolerance, birthday cake, formula one, nobel prize, but these don’t lead to particularly refined results. Users still need to add additional information if they are looking for something specific (e.g. recipes for the lactose intolerant). The majority of multiple term queries in my study were for such multiple term concepts, not for refined searches.

As to referrers to any particular site, although you may have data on what sites referred users to your site, you don’t have data on those people who did not end up on your site searching for similar topics. The relevant population is the number of people looking for the type of content featured on your site, not the number of people actually ending up on your site.


Dan 05.02.04 at 12:29 am

It’s certainly true that some people don’t know the difference between the Google search box and the url navigation box. There’s a (fairly large, I think) class of net user who might be quite experienced in the sense of having done it a lot, but is completely uninterested in any of what they would call the “inner workings”, such that to try and explain the difference between Google as a search engine and the internet as an entity would be met with a blank stare. For instance, I’ve been designing a band website lately which isn’t quite finished, and which I haven’t revealed to Google yet by linking to it. Another (not-net-savvy) member of the band asked me “When is it going to be on the internet?” What he meant was, “When am I going to be able to find it on Google?” (It was already *on* the internet in its unfinished state). But for him, the two were much the same thing.

I think it’s probably a mistake that gets made by users who have never known the internet *without* Google. Those of us who remember Archie and Veronica, for whom AltaVista came as a revelation, are used to the idea that search engines are idiosyncratic and fallible. Those who have only ever known Google are inclined to think that it’s *the* comprehensive index of the internet.

It’s a related point that people who have only ever used computers for the sake of accessing the internet are inclined to think of the computer and the internet as the same thing. A friend of mine came to me to say “the internet’s not working”, when the problem was in fact that the computer had crashed. The idea of a computer as separate from the internet, “offline” if you will, doesn’t really exist for someone who only uses it to access Hotmail. (Which, incidentally, has become synonymous with email for a certain class of net user who has never known another email client, or that there was even such a thing as an (non-browser) email client).


eszter 05.02.04 at 10:30 pm

Dan, thanks for the interesting anecdotes. It can be quite eye-opening to hear people talk about the Web, various online services, and as you say, even their computer. In my work, I found that some AOL users in particular would think of AOL and the Internet as somewhat different things. That is, they’d be online already but restricted to AOL service and then at some point they’d say something along the lines of “well, how do I go out onto the Internet from here”, which was interesting.


K Olson 05.06.04 at 12:05 am

Well, that was VERY interesting to hear of the user experience of being a guest on CNN. Sometimes when I’m facilitating a meeting or being an active participant in a meeting, the lag time is frustrating and sometimes embarassing. It’s awkward, and you’re never quite sure what people are doing in the background. I had always assumed that guests are viewing the reverse of what we (the audiences and the announcers) are viewing. It makes me all the more appreciate guests speaking on the show. What a challenge!

Was the background with the moving cars for real, or pre-recorded? I’m assuming pre-recorded, as the angle looking down on the cars would be unlikely, I imagine.


Marc Brenman 05.07.04 at 6:14 am

It is interesting to say “the Internet’s not working” when the person’s computer has crashed. (See Dan, 5/2/04) While this is said naively, when in fact only the person’s CPU has crashed, there may be some truth in the statement. The distributed computing function of the Net has indeed crashed, from the perspective of that user. The utility function of the Net has disappeared from that person’s perspective. Often, only an expert really knows why one’s ability to “compute” has ceased. Power surge? Hard drive carsh? Endless loop? Virus? Slow connection? Server unavailable? Rotten link? If we think of the Net as a means to get information to end users, then taking a single user offline involuntarily is a small percentage crash. Alas, to the Net as infrasturcture, the troubles of any one user don’t amount to a hill of beans. This makes it the ideal anti-humane system. Humans are superfluous to it. The time of the Borg has arrived.

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