Web Searchers Enjoy Misplaced Self-Confidence

Computer users are thrilled with Internet search engines, but that bliss may have its roots in ignorance.

That was the gist of a study released this week by the Pew Internet &American Life Project, which is based in Washington, D.C.

“Users paint a very rosy picture of their online search experiences,” Pewresearchers noted in a copy of the study obtained by TechNewsWorld. “Theyfeel in control as searchers; nearly all express confidence in theirsearching skills.”

Of the 2,200 adults surveyed by the researchers by phonebetween May 14 and June 17 of last year, 92 percent said they felt confidentabout their searching abilities.

Other study results, however, suggest that self-confidence may be misplaced, especially when it comes to distinguished paid from “organic” search results.

Happy Ferreters

“They are happy with the results they find; again, nearly all report thatthey are usually successful in finding what they’re looking for,”researchers reported. According to the Pew survey, 87 percent of ferreterssaid they had successful search experiences most of the time; another 17percent said they were successful all of the time.

And searchers are very trusting of what they find on the Net. The surveyorsfound that 68 percent of their sample said that search engines are a fairand unbiased source of information, with only 19 percent saying they didn’ttrust search engine results.

“In general, people are very trusting of things that they find on theInternet,” Alan Gordon, president of Findit.com, a recently launched searchengine. “Anyone can put up a Web site and say whatever they want. And ifthey’re smart enough, they can get it to show up at the top of Google. Doesthat mean what they wrote is accurate? Not at all.”

Knowledge Gap

But the glowing reviews respondents gave search engines in the study maystem from their dearth of knowledge about the technology.

“While most consumers could easily identify the difference between TV’sregular programming and its infomercials, or newspapers’ or magazines’reported stories and their advertorials, only a little more than a third ofsearch engine users are aware of the analogous sets of content commonlypresented by search engines, the paid or sponsored results and the unpaid or’organic’ results,” Pew reported.

“Overall,” the researchers noted, “only about one in six searchers say theycan consistently distinguish between paid and unpaid results.”

“This finding is particularly ironic,” they added, “since nearly half of allusers say they would stop using search engines if they thought engines werenot being clear about how they present their paid results.”

No Blinking Lights

According to the study, “Users do not object in principle to the idea thatsearch engines will include paid results, but they would like them to beupfront and clear about the practice of presenting paid results.”

Obscurity and immaturity have contributed to the confusion over advertisingand search findings, maintained Pew Senior Research Fellow Deborah Fallows.

“These paid results on search pages don’t jump out at you the waytraditional advertising on the Web does — lots of blinking lights, stars andbright colors, pop-up ads and so forth,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“On theother hand, people aren’t mature enough yet in the use of the medium thatthey’re thinking about it and looking for it and scrutinizing what they seeon the Web.”

Regulation in Wings?

As search engines work their way into the fabric of people’s lives, theiroperators can expect to come under increased scrutiny by regulators,observed Chris Sherman, associate editor of SearchEngineWatch.com.

“Icertainly hope it doesn’t get to the point where search engines areperceived as something that is in need of regulation,” he toldTechNewsWorld. “I would hope that they would act in the best interests ofeverybody, and the mechanism for judgment there is that people vote withtheir thumbs. They’ll click elsewhere if they’re not getting what theywant.”

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