University of Pittsburgh
October 20, 2004

Percentage of Sex-Related Web Searches Is Down by About Half Since 1997, While Business Searches Are Up by 86 Percent

New book by Pitt professor "is about the only book that says what people are really doing" on the Web
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—In the last seven years, the percentage of Web searches on sex has declined, while that of business-related searches has gone up, according to a new book on Web searching coauthored by a University of Pittsburgh professor.

These trends are among those found by Amanda Spink, associate professor of information sciences at Pitt, and coauthor Bernard J. Jansen in their book Web Search: Public Searching of the Web (Springer). The book is based on studies Spink and Jansen conducted between 1997 and 2004. Jansen is assistant professor of information sciences and technology at The Pennsylvania State University.

"It's very difficult to find information on how people are searching the Web because the Web companies are very cagey about giving any information," said Spink. "Because we were fortunate enough to get data from different Web companies, ours is about the only book that says what people are really doing."

Spink and Jansen found that, even in the past few years, what people are searching for has changed significantly, moving away from searches on sex—which have declined by almost 50 percent since 1997—and entertainment to searches on business and

e-commerce, which have increased by 86 percent.

Within this overall decline in sex-related searches, however, one type of search stood out, said Spink: When people are looking for multimedia (images, audio, or video) on the Web—which generally means pornography—the number of queries they search for, and their complexity, increases. "When people are searching for multimedia, they tend to do more queries, particularly if it's sexually related," said Spink. "And when people are searching for multimedia, they seem more agreeable to doing more advanced search features."

When sex isn't involved, though, people don't seem to want to work as much at searching. Since 1997, searches have remained short and simple, with an average of two words per query and two queries per search session. Also, most people won't look past the first page of results, so companies vie to get their pages up at the top of the list with sponsored links. People expect search engines to be simple to use—and companies market them as such.

However, search engines aren't actually designed that way. "The fundamentals of most of the retrieval systems being used now were developed back in the 1950s and '60s, and a lot of them haven't changed," said Spink. "If you look at the Web search engines, most of them don't have as extensive functionality as the electronic library catalogs. For example, many search engines don't allow many date limitation options. Why isn't there that level of functionality with Web searches?"

Also, no search engine covers more than 20 percent of the Web, even though people think they're searching the entire Internet, said Spink. Even "meta" search engines like Dogpile, which get results from many search engines at once, don't cover the whole Web. As a result, people may not be searching as effectively as they could be.

And this ineffective searching doesn't apply just to the Web, but also to companies' electronic databases, with major results: According to a 2001 study by the International Data Corporation, companies are losing millions of dollars a year because of bad searching. "If you're expecting people to do their work and search electronically to find information, then that's a really big economic issue," said Spink.

Not only do companies need to make their search tools easier to use—users must do their part as well, Spink says. "You can't rely just on the technology improvement, because it's going to take a long time. People need to learn how to search and be better-informed consumers of these systems," she said. "I think it might take a generation, unless we make a national investment in realizing that we need to do this."

Spink and Jansen are currently studying the search engine of Pittsburgh-based Web search company Vivísimo (http://vivisimo.com); the company will use their findings to improve its engine's usability.

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