The Web Search Behavior Of Adult Learners

An EU Socrates project has mapped the search strategies of adult learners. There is something in it for other searchers and search engine marketers as well.

When designing web sites and other types of information architecture it is important to know how users behave. Quite a few designers and search engines optimizers have found themselves at loss when surfers refuse to behave the way internet professionals expects them to.

This is why the Socrates Minerva Program project SEEKS: Adult learners’ information seeking strategies in the Information Society, is of interest also for people not involved in life long learning.

The project team has gathered comprehensive data on the Information Seeking Behaviors (ISBs) of adult learners. The study has resulted in a set of guidelines for developers of educational software and ICT-based learning instructors.

The project has been coordinated by the IOE Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. The other partners were Universiteit van Amsterdam, the Institute of Applied & Computational Mathematics in Greece, Universitat de Barcelona, and Universitat des Saarlandes.

Here is a summary of some of their results.

Types of websites

The people that were tested used three types of websites: commercial portals (presumably sites like Yahoo and MSN), search engines (sites like Google and AltaVista); and thematic websites (many types depending on the subject).

The researchers found that beginners only used commercial portals, that experienced beginners used portals and search engines, and that experienced users used tall three kinds of websites. Hence the type or types of websites used by searchers appears to be related to how experienced Internet users the learners are.

Number of alternatives

Only in three out of the fifty scenarios the participants went on to the second page of search results. In no case did the participants check more than eight websites, and in twenty cases out of a total of fifty they only checked one website.

Having Internet access at home was of high importance. People with home access are generally more experienced users and more savvy searchers.

Preference of search engine

76% of the users preferred to one popular search engine (Google). The choice was based on usability. The searchers found that Google had an easy interface (very simple to use), and that it provided different alternatives in a prompt manner.

Other factors were the amount of information given for each alternative, the automatic correction of errors, and the fact that Google had alternative sites for the relevant local language.

Selection of search engine results

The participants reported the following reasons for deciding on why a website is relevant:

  • Reliability
  • Speed
  • The quality of the information
  • The quality of the design
  • Trust and confidence
  • Clear and simple format and language
  • Local idiom
  • Direct access to the solution of problems
  • The fact that no personal data is required
  • That the website is previously known by the searcher, friends or media.

Information Seeking Strategies

Depending on the parameters employed in the searching process, the project distinguishes between three kinds of searchers among low-IT users: passive searchers, selective searchers, and dynamic searchers.

Passive searchers

Passive searchers do not use Internet frequently. When searching, these individuals go to a popular website (generally a commercial portal). When browsing, they normally use natural language, as well as their own mother tongue.

When they select the data, they tend to look for direct information.

They trust simple and clear interfaces. If they don’t find the information they are looking for, they take it for granted that the information is not available on the Web.

Selective searchers

The selective searchers are the average Internet users. Usually they go to a website they already know to find information, but they also use search engines.

When starting browsing search engine results they take into account the number of alternatives, if navigation is friendly, etc.

When selecting content they prefer information given in a direct and clear format. They look for sites that seem to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the subject at hand.

Dynamic searchers

The dynamic searchers have ample experience in using the Internet. Hence they use a wider variety of strategies for finding information on the. Their Internet competence allows them to access different kind of websites depending of the nature of the need. Their own knowledge of the subject at hand helps them solve find relevant information more effectively.

These searchers use all three types of websites: commercial portals, search engines and thematic websites.

When browsing, he or she takes into account all the parameters defined in the model: the number of alternatives, time and speed, the use of natural language, the possibility of using ones own mother tongue, and the accessibility of the interface.

When selecting information all relevant factors are taken into account: reliability, confidence, relevance, direct information, simple and clear format, and the reliability of the content. These searchers get the best results

However, even these searchers base their competences on personal experience and they have never learned how to select good information.

The following quotation from the conclusion of one of the reports discusses the consequence of this phenomena:

"A specific problem is the so-called “Production Paradox”, which consists of users often not being willing to learn basics, if this learning process seems to hold them up in reaching their primary goal. This corresponds to the poor readiness to read help texts from computer programmes or in this case, search engines.

"Computer programmes, like the use of search engines appear as something not worthy to make the effort of learning. An apparent “intuitive handling” encourages this way of thinking. However, intuition depends on what is known and with what analogies can be built. If the analogies are incorrect, then the use of software will inevitably lead to disorientation"

The researchers conclude that against this background, it is important for developers and software designers to prevent "the illusion" that relevant information can be found without any effort.

Moreover, developers must improve the user-friendliness of search engines in such a way that they are easy to comprehend and use, with simple functions and services for inexperienced users.

Note: This is an archived article, written by Per and Susanna Koch. First published on June 16 2004.