Search behaviour is changing significantly

Search engine users are changing the way they look for things; and it’s a significant jump. When the Internet was a mere baby, you could easily find things. All it took was an army of editors at Yahoo! and they presented you with a list of all the good stuff. But that was only when the web was a few million pages.

Nowadays, that’s the number of pages added in an hour or two and only automated search engines like Google can even hope to keep up. Over the years, though, our usage of Google has changed substantially and new research published this week signals an even bigger change in search behaviour.

When Google first arrived we’d search for a single word – and usually we’d get what we wanted within the first page. But as more pages appeared, single word searches were inadequate, so we upped our game and started looking for two, three and even four word phrases.

Now, though, it seems we are typing in ever-longer phrases, often complete questions and sentences, in a bid to find the focused material we want.

In a sense, this suggests Google has failed. After all, if it were any good it would be able to determine what we wanted from our search phrases. The fact that we are having to type in longer and longer phrases could imply Google is getting confused by the vastly increasing amount of content. It suggests the Google algorithm is pretty weak.

Of course, equally, it implies that for Google to really know what we wanted to find from just a few words means it has to be psychic. The only way it really has of getting inside our minds is for us to be more accurate about what we put in the search box. Google’s failure to provide what we want is frequently our own failure to type in a good enough search term.

It seems, however, that we are indeed getting better at doing this because we are using longer phrases which give a greater clue to what we want to find.

But there is another psychological impact. The more we have to type, the more we have to think about what we type in and the more effort we need to make to find things. And that’s bad. Psychologically, everything works to REDUCE effort, not increase it. From a biological perspective our body’s systems are primed to do things with the least effort. It’s part of the mechanism of survival.

As soon as we realise we are having to commit more effort – we shy away from it. Is it any wonder that Twitter is so popular? Compared with blogging, or setting things up on a web site, a quick note on Twitter is so much less effort. And is it any wonder, therefore, that many people are using Twitter as a search engine. Instead of having to commit the effort to trawl through endless lists of potential web pages to look at in a search result, simply ask a question and get everyone else to do the work for you. Brilliant; at heart we’re all quite lazy…!

The fact that we are all typing in longer phrases to find what we want is an indication that we might not be too far away from that “tipping point” when traditional search becomes too much effort for us. Just as it was too much effort for us to trawl through all the various directory pages in those early Yahoo! years, compared with the ease of that upstart Google at the time.

Google isn’t daft, of course. They know that search as we have it today will disappear. Things like semantic search will help search engines extract meaning from the phrases we type in. But it’s a long way off from working consistently and accurately enough to be used every day.

For your business, though, all of this debate about search means there is an opportunity. Until searching via Twitter becomes mainstream – and until semantic search arrives fully – your web site visitors have to stick with traditional search. And that means people will be typing in ever longer phrases – including questions.

This suggests that if your web pages have questions as titles and if the titles are longer than five words, you stand a greater chance of being found. All the traditional wisdom for optimising pages for search engines is to have relatively short titles. Our change in search behaviour shows that this is dated advice – longer title phrases are now more likely to help you get found.

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