Search and Decisiveness

First published February 25, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

My last two columns (column 1 | column 2) explored decisiveness within a very defined scope: college students picking courses. I did that by analyzing an interesting study conducted by Wesleyan University, which used eye tracking to show how decisive and indecisive people differed in their processing of information.

In reading the study, my mind went back seven years to one of the first research studies Enquiro ever did (and still our most popular download): Inside the Mind of the Searcher. In it, we observed the behaviors of 24 individuals as they used search engines to carry out tasks. It was the first qualitative study we did, before we used eye tracking. But the Wesleyan study reminded me of some interesting insights from that study.

As we looked at the group, we started seeing some different search strategies, which we divided into four groups: The Scan and Clicker, The 2 Step Scanner, the Deliberate Researcher and the 1,2,3 Searcher.

Here is a brief description of each:

The Scan and Clicker (12.5% of our total group). These people scanned the top three or four results and clicked right away if they found something of interest. They were less likely than the 2 Step Scanners to return to the results set.

2 Step Scanners (25% of our total group). They’d scan the top results, same as the Scan and Clickers, and might click on a listing of interest, but would tend to “pogo stick” more, clicking through to a site, but then returning to the search engine and checking out at least one or two other sites before committing to one site.

Deliberate Researchers (41.6% of our total group). This group felt they had to scan the entire results set before clicking on a result. This group spent the longest time on the page, almost 40 seconds, compared to 15 to 20 seconds average duration for the other searchers.

The 1,2,3 Searchers (20.8% of our total group) This group worked down the results in order, seeming to consider each result individually. There didn’t appear to be as much back and forth consideration as we saw in other groups. Of course, we weren’t using eye tracking, so it was difficult to accurately track specific eye movements.

Now, these sessions were recorded seven years ago now, so I suspect some of the behaviors we saw were modified as people became more familiar with search engines. I’ve talked before about how we develop conditioned strategies through repeated tasks. Search is a prime candidate for this.

Decisiveness and Search Patterns

In looking back, it does seem that the same decisiveness vs. indecisiveness behaviors identified in the Wesleyan study were also appearing in ours.

One of the interesting things I’ve found in our own research, and something also alluded to in the Wesleyan study, is that you need to track behaviors in minute detail before you start to see the nuances that may indicate different underlying strategies. For example, we’ve seen aggregate heat maps that look almost identical between two groups, but it was only when we walked through the eye movements on a second-by-second (even a quarter-second-by-quarter-second) basis that we saw people taking significantly different paths to end up at the same destination.

The Wesleyan study found that under the pressure of time, indecisive people might abandon maximizing strategies to adopt “satisficing” behavior. This may yield similar results at the end, but can generate greater levels of stress and anxiety on the way to a decision.

I suspect decisiveness could be a critical factor in how we might navigate any Web page, including a set of search results. For example, how would decisiveness impact our interaction with the sponsored ads at the top of the page, or visually richer results? Great questions — currently with few answers.

I’ll see what I can do about that.

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