Search Is A Learning Activity
When a team of Pennsylvania State University researchers set out to discover the cognitive processes underlying search behavior, the team discovered that Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other search engines have become part of the learning process for people who venture online.
While the news should not come as a shock to those in the online advertising and marketing biz, the findings might comfort a few worried souls. Researchers found that rather than a simple source for information, search engines have become part of the learning process for everything from making purchases to verifying facts.
Led by Pennsylvania State Associate Professor Jim Jansen, the team examined the search habits of 72 people who conducted 426 search tasks. The study is based on Bloom taxonomy, which Jansen explains has six well-known classifications -- or levels -- of cognitive learning, from basic to research. "If searching is a learning activity, you would think there would be different levels of search and behavior, and that's what I set out to investigate," he says.
Many times, search is viewed as problem-solving or decision-making processes. Previously, when Jansen investigated the two, the findings never translated into better search techniques. In the past, people regarded the Web as a place for simple searching tasks and for verification of facts.
So he was interested in modeling search behavior. Determining the motivational, cognitive and contextual aspects of why and how people use search engines could help search engines like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo create better designs for higher interaction or engagement with consumers.
The findings provide information about how search engine use has evolved, as well as insight into how to design better search engines to address users' learning needs in the future. The study reveals a similarity between the basic levels of learning with higher levels of evaluation.
The mega search engines, such as Google, represented more than 72% of all instances of use. Most participants used one information system to address searching scenarios, along with some destination Web site or page. More than 18% of the participants used two systems, with the remainder using between three and five information systems for a given scenario.
The study notes that defining an information system is up for discussion. "Is Google an information system, an information portal, or a navigational aid or just a document?" the study asks. Based on the researchers' definition of "information system," the group included "general-purpose" search engines.
Jansen says participants in the study, which the university conducted just prior to the launch of WolframAlpha, relied on a variety of sites -- Google, MSN, Ask, Yahoo, WebMD and others -- to determine the findings. "I don't know if WolframAlpha is ready for prime time yet," Jansen says. "If you look at Google Squared, that also is an interesting learning tool. It processes information for you and presents it in an integrated fashion."