How Gender Affects Search: Part One

First published January 4, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

A recent PEW Internet study exploring how men and women use the Internet points out some interesting differences between the sexes. This caught my attention because in every study we’ve done, we’ve tried to break out results by gender and explored the different usage patterns. It’s been fascinating to see how millions of years of conditioning and the differences in our respective genetic wiring have impacted our use of a new technology. The PEW study echoed a lot of what we had seen. What I’d like to do over the next two columns is explore this further. Today, I’ll present some of the more interesting findings from the PEW study and ours, and next week I’ll provide my thoughts on why we may be seeing what we’re seeing.

Comfort Levels:

The PEW study found that men are slightly more intense Internet users than women, and seem to be more engaged when on line. Men are more likely to go online on a daily basis and tend to do so a little more frequently. Men are also a little more likely to have a high-speed connection at home.

When we add age breakdowns to the mix, an interesting anomaly occurs, with older men (65 and over) more likely to be online than older women, but younger women (18 – 29) more likely to be online than younger men.

What They Do Online:

Men and women have very distinct reasons for going online. Men tend to retrieve information, such as weather, news, sports scores, and financial information. They also download software, listen to music (or download it), research products, look for jobs, find out how to repair something, or educate themselves on a topic.

For women, the Internet is first and foremost a communication vehicle, with e-mail a prime reason for usage. Women also look for health, medical and religious information, and support for health or personal problems.

Some gender stereotypes never die. Women are still more likely to look for maps and directions online than men. Once a guy, always a guy!

The Sexes and Search:

It used to be that there was a distinct male bias towards search usage. That is rapidly disappearing, but is still apparent. In earlier studies (done in 2003 and 2004) PEW found that 35 percent of men and 25 percent of women were likely to use a search engine on a typical day. In 2005, usage on both sides of the gender divide soared, but men still edged out women, by 43 percent to 39 percent.

In our research, we found that men were more likely to use Google, which dominated as the engine of choice. For women, although Google was still the number-one choice, it was closely followed by MSN and Yahoo.

We also found that men were more likely to use advanced search queries. They also tended to spend a little less time actively reading listings, and made their decisions to click faster. Women tended to be a little more deliberate in their search sessions. Men scanned more of the search results page, but women spent more time with the page.

We found that women were more influenced by what they read in the listing, when men seemed to be a little more conditioned to trust the first organic listings. This usually translated into slightly higher click-throughs on the sponsored results for women.

Perhaps the most interesting thing we found, despite the differences noted above, was this: when men and women interacted with almost every type of site online, there were distinct differences in how they assimilated information, navigated sites and responded to visual cues. When we looked at how they interacted with a search results page, the differences, while present, were much more subtle.

Why?

Hang onto that question, and I’ll hazard a guess next week.

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