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What are people searching for and where are they looking?

This article appears in the issue March 2008 (100 Companies) [Volume 17, Issue 3]
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We know that knowledge workers spend a large percentage of their time looking for information. What are they looking for and where are they looking? In fall 2007, we set about trying to find out. In conjunction with KMWorld and IDC’s Technology Advisory Panel, we asked participants to tell us how long they spent searching, what their typical questions were, and where they went (online or print) to find the information they needed.

The 272 people who answered our questions ran the gamut of job categories, with 28 percent coming from IT, 21 percent from professional services, 12 percent from operations and 10 percent from executive management. They were distributed fairly evenly by company size and across industry, education and government sectors. Here’s what we found:

1. Everyone looks for information first on the Web.

We asked respondents to tell us about the last time they looked for information. Although 54 percent of the companies and organizations polled had site search engines and 35 percent had intranet search engines, Figure 1 on page 9 (KMWorld, Vol 17, Issue 3) shows that 62 percent of the respondents looked first on a Web search engine. Only 2 percent stated that they used their intranet search engines. They will go to a colleague (8 percent) before they try the company intranet. That should be a wake-up call for administrators to improve access to internal information by making it easy to use (dare one say "fun"?), and also by ensuring that the content employees need is searchable.

Those searches were split between personal (57 percent) and business uses (43 percent). Seventy-six percent told us that their last search was a typical one for them.

2. Even if everyone uses the Web first, the reasons for the searches varied.

The largest percentage of searches was for documents about a topic (45 percent), particularly for scientific and technical information (30 percent). Many sought Web addresses (26 percent) or advice from peers or experts (24 percent). Figure 2 on page 9 shows the distribution in detail, but note that although only 2 percent said they used the company intranet, 13 percent stated that they were looking for internal company information. That’s puzzling.

Apparently, KMWorld and IDC readers are a varied but fairly tame lot. Although top searches on the Web are reported to be about places (on Web or off), celebrities, pornography or hot news items, our respondents were looking for information related to work or movies or self-improvement. One timely search was for corporate bankruptcy rules. But that was balanced out by the search for "data on a yacht." Here’s a sampling of the information quests:

  • Looking for SSA policy information related to performance management.
  • Locations where a movie is playing.
  • Data on a yacht.
  • Looking for possible supplier of marketing collateral.
  • Benefits manual for my insurance company.
  • Wondered about nutritional information and searched for it via Google.
  • I was asking for information about a vendor.
  • I needed information about a system, and asked a person I know who’s using the system.
  • Complex Excel formula.
  • Looking for business intelligence information.
  • I was working on a project in which I needed some information from our client, so I e-mailed my client contact.
  • Information on one of the company’s reporting tools.
  • Business audio books for sale.
  • If a Taco Bueno is opening in Austin.
  • New EDD technology.
  • Corporate bankruptcy rules.
  • Gathering requirements for Web site.
  • Yesterday at a sales meeting someone mentioned a competitor, and this morning I looked up its company Web site through a Google search to find out more.
  • The meaning and correct usage of a phrase—checked in dictionary/encyclopedia sites.
  • The origin and social use of suffixes "Senior" and "Junior," particularly in social context.
  • Information on world steel production.
  • Use of Pipelines charts for identifying the opportunity for improvement across our value stream activities.
  • Needed to find latest Dell laptop information.
  • Life and work of Gandhi.
  • What were the details quoted to the client for an upgrade project.
  • Looked for information on an artist, a sculptor.

3. Knowledge workers spend a lot of time looking for information.

How often do people search for information for either personal or business reasons? Our surveys over the last six years show little change in the time that business users search online: roughly 9.5 hours each week. But we had no data for personal searches. Participants spent six to 10 hours per week on average searching for both personal and business reasons. Eleven percent of business searchers were searching more than 10 hours a week, but searches for personal reasons took fewer hours, with only 4 percent searching more than 10 hours each week. They told us that they launch an average of more than three searches per hour when they are searching.

4. Here are some thoughts.

This is a relatively small sample of self-selecting professionals who are willing to answer questionnaires. Nevertheless, while not surprising, the data on where professionals are looking for information is discouraging. The wealth of data in the "hidden Web" is apparently untapped. Few go to content aggregators, specialized vertical or topical sites. Few go to their intranets to find information. While intranets may not have all the information that people need to do their job, they should be portals to related information as well. They should be outstanding starting places that help employees find information anywhere.

Keepers of Web sites have an obligation to ferret out the best-related information they can and create pointers to it. It appears that either this isn’t the case, or they haven’t publicized their efforts. Instead, everyone is going to Google, Yahoo or MSN. While there is nothing wrong with going to a good general index to a lot of information, those of us who have been in the online industry for a while know that the "good stuff" gets hidden if it is thrown into the larger Web grab bag. And very often, it isn’t even in that grab bag because it isn’t indexed.

What’s interesting is that the notion of a need for selection—for finding only high-quality information—is beginning to surface at last. Recommendation engines, contextual search and vertical search sites are all making a comeback. And with good reason: Web searchers are literally buried in information today. Between e-mail overload and searches that return millions of documents, they have trouble getting to their actual jobs. Therefore, they are crying out for tools that will tell them what they need to pay attention to in the pile. How we will manage to apply automatic assessment and weighting factors to information to find the good stuff is certainly a research topic that will keep doctoral students going for a long time.

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