Why Do We Search?

First published June 19, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This is the second in a series exploring the question of how we interact with search pages and the impact on brand relationships. Today we look at why we search in the first place.

Let’s begin with perhaps the most fundamental question ever asked in this industry. Why do we search? I’ve been in this industry for over 12 years now, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an answer to it. Why do we seek information? Is this need cultural or inherited? Is how we seek information changing?


The Roots of Curiosity

We search because we are curious. And curiosity comes from chaos. Curiosity allows us to survive in a dynamic and unstable environment. The more things change, the greater our curiosity. It keeps us alert and looking for the knowledge we need to survive. So the drive to be curious is inherited, but the degree of curiosity is cultural. Our environment determines how curious we are. If nothing changed, we wouldn’t need curiosity. So it’s probably not coincidental that for some of us, curiosity declines as we age. We seek more stable environments. Our need to monitor and adapt to our environment decreases, and with it, our need to learn.

We seek information for many reasons. Remember, almost every action we take is driven by emotion, but there is usually a rational justification that accompanies it. Our emotions and our reason work together to pick the best possible path for us. Antonio Damasio has done extensive research in this area, referring to our emotional cues, our gut instincts, as “somatic markers.” Rational thought needs information, and information, in turn, feeds our emotions. Information is essential grist for our curiosity mill.

Essential Information

Information is key in everything we do. Either we have this information stored in our brains–allowing us to conduct the task in question or function normally–or we don’t, causing us to seek it. The problem in seeking information is not one of quantity, it’s one of quality. There has never been more information available, but it can be difficult finding the right information. In our culture, a huge part of our cognitive effort is spent filtering out the onslaught of information that bombards us every day. No culture in history has been surrounded by more information than our present one, and it’s expanding exponentially.

Sometimes our need for information is purely rational. We need information to complete a task (looking up a phone number, referring to a map, reading directions) or to learn something new. Sometimes our need for information is less clear-cut, tied in with the social machinations that make us human. Remember, gossip is a glue that binds our society, and gossip is nothing more than the gathering and sharing of personal information. So our information-seeking is often tied to an incredibly complex concept of social structure and status. Sometimes we seek information because we need it. Sometimes we seek information just because we want it. Information is a valuable currency in our society, and it can be one factor in determining social status. Obviously, the information gained from supermarket tabloids and searches for “Britney Spears” is of questionable value–but we, as humans, also have a need for this type of information. Information helps define political structure and alliances, in-groups versus out-groups, elevated status within a group and other purely social functions.

The Easiest Path to Information

Our quest for information comes from within and without. As we constantly scan our environment, we find situations we need to respond to. This can trigger a physiological and intellectual chain of events that requires information. We scan our store of information, retrieve what we have and identify what we don’t. Sometimes the need is immediate. We need the information now. Sometimes it’s far off and the information-seeking process is of much longer duration.

If we need to seek information because we don’t have it stored in our memory, most of us will take the easiest path. Our information retrieval habits will vary from person to person, but generally we seek to save energy, so we will take the shortest route to the information. And our path will be dictated by how well we know what we’re looking for. When we seek information, our quest can fall into three different categories: we don’t know what we’re looking for, we know what we’re looking for but don’t know where to find it, or we know what we’re looking for and where to find it. Which path we take to find information depends on where we feel it will be easiest to find the answer. When we talk about information-seeking and the ease of retrieval, the Web–and in particular, Web search–has been the most significant development in the history of man. That’s where we start in the next column.

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