How Gender Affects Search: Part Two

First published January 12, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I talked about studies, done both by the PEW Internet group and Enquiro, that explored the differences between how men and women interact online. A number of differences had been observed in general with how both sexes use the Internet, but I wrapped up by saying that while this was also true in search, the differences seem to be much more subtle.

First, let’s explore one of the biggest variations in how men and women use the Internet. Please understand I’m talking averages and generalities here. Yes, there are women and men who are exceptions to what I’m about to say. I’m aware of the fact, and endlessly grateful for it.

The task-obsessed male.

The PEW study found that while men look at the Internet as a resource and tool to accomplish a task, women use it as a communication channel. Men appreciate the Internet’s ability to help them get the job at hand done. They like the do-it-yourself nature of the Internet, they love new toys, and they’re more apt to adopt and experiment with new technologies. When a man is online, he has a clear goal in sight and is looking for the shortest possible path to get there. While men will experiment forever to get some new piece of software or hardware working, they have the attention span of a gnat when it comes to looking for information online. For everyone who has a Flash intro on their site, here’s my hedged bet. Look at your abandonment numbers when the Flash file is loading, and I’m betting 60 percent-plus of those are men.

The multitasking female.

Women are social creatures. They also multitask better, and are more comfortable browsing. Women will be more patient with non-obvious navigation options. They’re more apt to explore the nooks and crannies of a site to see what they can find. And they look at the Internet as a way to reach out to a larger global community, and to connect with geographically distant friends and family.

Right brain vs. left brain in search.

This offers our first clue why the gender split is not so apparent on search. Search is a task-oriented activity. You got there to get closer to your online objective. For that reason, search is more left-brain (words and numbers) than right-brain (emotions and intuition), a more masculine endeavor than a feminine one. That’s why men were much heavier users of search engines than women in the earlier days of the Internet. Women are catching up, but the balance has been on the male side since day one. And when women do use search, they are forced to adopt a more masculine approach to it.

This right-brain, left-brain theory of mine extends to the actual search interface as well.

I believe one of the reasons we don’t see more gender variation in search result interaction is because the format forces everyone, whether man or woman, to use the left brain to assimilate the information. There are no emotional stimuli, no pictures, not even much in the way of colors. Everything is presented as text. The right brain has been rendered basically useless in this exercise. This has the impact of leveling the playing field between the sexes in interacting with search results.

This is not true throughout the interaction, however. When searchers start clicking through to sites, the typical left-brain and right-brain tendencies take over again, and the nature of interaction again splits along gender lines more noticeably.

We shape what we see in search.

My fellow Search Insider David Berkowitz added his own thoughts after last week’s column. David proposes that it’s the interactive nature of search that eliminates some of the gender variations in how we interact with the results. With most Web sites, the same material is presented to everyone when they arrive, and it’s up to the individual how he or she interacts with it. The content is the same, the design is the same, the navigation options are the same. This allows an open opportunity for men and women to react differently.

But with search, you don’t see results until you take an action, namely the launching of a search. Then, the results are tailored to the query that has just been launched. And it’s this increased level of engagement that may take men and women down a more similar path. We have already dictated the content of the page, to some extent, so there is less opportunity for men and women to react differently to the resulting page. In David’s words, “The search engine becomes the ineffable partner, the one who’s always responding to you on target, based on how you initiated the conversation”.

So those are a few ideas of why Venus and Mars are much more closely aligned in search than in other online destinations. I may be totally off-base, but what else is new? I’m a guy!

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