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Search engine research (June 2003)

Impatient web searchers measure web sites' appeal in seconds.

Research conducted by Pennsylvania State University in the USA into the behaviour of web users on search engines has been presented at the 2003 International Conference on Internet Computing in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Based on research conducted in February 2001 the research analyzed more than 450,000 web queries submitted to AlltheWeb.com in a 24-hour period, reviewing users' actions in chronological order. The length of sessions, number of pages visited and relevance of results were studied.

The main findings reported were that web users are picky and impatient, typically visiting only the first three results from a query, with one in five searchers spending 60 seconds or less on a linked Web document.

According to Dr. Jim Jansen, assistant professor in Penn State’s Information Sciences and Technology (IST), people make instantaneous judgments about whether to stay on a site, and if a site doesn't the give the right impression, users will bypass it. Jansen commented that a web page has to be well-designed, easy to load and relevant to a searcher's needs - otherwise, by the time three minutes have elapsed, 40 percent of searchers will have moved on. While some may have found what they wanted, others may simply have given up and moved to a different site.

Several patterns were noted. Half of all users entered only one query with 54 percent viewing just one page of results in each session (a session was a query or series of queries submitted by a user during one interaction with a Web search engine). Only an additional 19 percent went on to the second page in sessions, and fewer than 10 percent of users bothered with the third page of results. A similar drop-off in numbers occurred when the researchers considered how many results searchers viewed per query. About 55 percent of users checked out one result only. More than 80 percent stopped after looking at three results.

Therefore with more businesses trying to market their business through search engines, those percentages illustrate why a good ranking on a major Web search engine can make the difference between commercial success and failure. To improve the odds web users will visit a site, Jansen said it is imperative to get indexed by all search engines.

A site's abstract that appears on the results page also can direct more users to a site - provided the description is enticing and relevant specifics about the site are included. "For site developers, if you want to be looked at, it is absolutely critical that the abstract be crystal clear about the purpose of your Web site," Jansen said. "Eight out of 10 times, the abstract dissuades people from going to the site."

The researchers had news for consumers, too: They have a valid reason to be frustrated sometimes with web searches. One out of every two results isn't relevant to what the searcher was looking for, Jansen said. "As good as search engines are, there is room for improvement," Jansen said. "Niche search engines that focus on a narrow topic or search engines that cluster results by finding similarities and grouping them may be consumers' best bet for improving relevancy."

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