Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

A Survey of Internet Searches and Their Results

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

A Survey of Internet Searches and Their Results

Article excerpt

In this study, we collected more than two hundred Internet searches using Magellan Voyeur, and then reentered the searches in Magellan and Hotbot. We categorized the searches by the search operators used, including search engine math, phrase searches, Boolean logic, natural word searches, and Web address searches. Here we assess the relative success of the various strategies, as well as the implications for user education.

The Internet has become a pervasive feature of modern life, with more than ninety million users in North America alone. It is part of the curriculum in most elementary schools, widely available free at public libraries, and a major feature of pop culture. Commonly touted as an electronic library, it is also derided as a "stuff swamp," "the world's largest pamphlet file," or "a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly."(1)

When the Internet is considered an entertainment medium, the difficulty of finding a specific item on the Internet might actually be an attraction to users, Web owners, and advertisers. Users find occasional gold nuggets of entertainment and information while they're searching for something else, and psychologists, gamblers, and lab rats will tell you that random positive reinforcement is the most powerful kind of incentive. Site owners know that being entertaining or merely bizarre can generate traffic and the consequent advertising revenues. Advertisers seek the user's trancelike state that starts with a few clicks and ends hours later without a sense of time's passage, whether this occurs in front of a computer monitor or television.

When the Internet is considered an information medium, the extent that users are able to find what they are seeking is a measure of the Internet's usefulness. About 85 percent of users go to a search tool when they want to locate something. Search tools are some of the busiest and most profitable sites on the Web. What methods searchers use and how well the various methods work has implications for those instructing the Internet's many new users. In this survey, we look at actual searches to determine what kinds of searches users are performing and how successful various types of searches are.


We collected a total of 207 searches in March 1999 using Magellan Voyeur, which displays random searches currently being performed on the Magellan site.(2) The aptly named Magellan Voyeur allows the viewer to follow any of the displayed searches. The user can also copy and save displayed searches, as we did for this survey. No identification of the original searcher can be made.

Though the searches displayed are random, the searches in this sample were not. To minimize searches from classrooms and businesses and maximize searches by individuals, we gathered data on weekdays between 7 and 10 P.M. (CST) and on Saturdays between 5 and 6 P.M. We only included English language searches, as foreign language searches are difficult to evaluate for spelling errors. Since Magellan is not heavily advertised and does not command a large market share, users of the Magellan site have sought out a well regarded but not well-known tool. While we can not identify the searchers in the study sample, the time and language constraints make it likely that they are from either the United States or Canada, are not at work or school, and might be slightly more computer savvy than average.

In this study, we reentered the sample searches in Magellan and Hotbot, and noted the total number of hits returned. We categorized searches by the search operators used and noted the success of the various methods. We also analyzed the effect of obvious spelling errors.

Magellan, like the better-known Yahoo!, is a subject directory that selects sites and arranges them into subject categories.(3) Yahoo's selected sites and categories are searched, as opposed to search engines such as Alta Vista or Hotbot, which try to cover wider portions of the Internet. …

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