For Many, It’s All About the Very First Search Result

Jakob Nielsen’s new Alertbox article: The Power of Defaults, does a great job of summarizing and commenting on new search engine research from Cornell University about why and where people click on a search results page.

From Nielsen’s article:

Search engine users click the results listings’ top entry much more often than can be explained by relevancy ratings. Once again, people tend to stick to the defaults. This study goes far to address why users tend to click on the top hit. There are two plausible explanations:

    • Search engines are so good at judging relevancy that they almost always place the best hit on top.


  • Users click the top hit not because it’s any better, but simply because it’s first. This might be due to sheer laziness (after all, you start from the top) or because users assume the search engine places the best hit on top, whether that’s actually true or not. As the study shows, the answer is clearly a little of both.

As someone who does a great deal of work teaching people how to become better searchers and take advantage of the “power” that most of the large web engines and verticals offer, I’m hardly surprised by these numbers.

Sure, searching should be easy but at the same time most people don’t have a clue about what a small amount of learning can do to provide them with better results in less time and aggravation.will Every good and useful result can’t always be at number one.

Search education does not need to be a long, drawn out affair. A little learning goes a long way and it’s been my experience that just sharing a little gets people motivated to learn more. I’ve said time after time here on the blog that the search engines should do more to help teach people (especially certain user groups) to be better searchers, go beyond the defaults, and formulate better queries from the outset.

Web searching is not a field of dreams. Building search tools (for example, customization features) doesn’t mean people will come and use them. In fact, they don’t. Some user education is not only a good public service but also good business because a typical user can’t even attempt using what an engine offers if they don’t what’s available and why it might be useful.

Two groups that need and deserve plenty of search education are students and teachers. Let’s get to new searchers at a young age. Librarians would be a great group for any engine to partner with. Good info retrieval and critcal info skills (is the info accurate? current? etc.) should be a top concern for all of us.

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