How Search is Like Travel

    February 14, 2007

I’ve written in this space before about Web site searcher behavior, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked about how it feels to search. To do so, I think it helps for us to compare the way it feels to search for information to the way it feels to search for a physical destination. I believe that we human beings have many of the same neurons firing when we engage in those two tasks. So, how is searching like traveling? I think it’s all about feeling "in control."

Many people, faced with a trip into an unfamiliar city, choose to drive their cars, rather than taking the train, because driving provides more of a feeling of control-they can change lanes or choose a different route to speed them on their way. They may even know logically that the train is faster, but they can’t stand the helplessness of waiting at the train station with no control over when or whether they will be picked up. They also may feel more comfortable following street signs than they do navigating an unfamiliar subway system with no physical landmarks.

Now, if the same people find themselves commuting into the city every day, they may eventually choose to do it the fastest way, despite their discomfort, and they eventually will become confident that the train will come.

What does this have to do with search?

Just like travelers, searchers want to feel in control. And just like those once-in-a-while city travelers, searchers don’t know where they are going-that’s why they are searching in the first place. So Web site searchers start out not feeling in control-maybe that’s why they tend to navigate by clicking links before they search.

So how do you put a searcher in control? You might think it would be to offer more options, such as the Advanced Search forms most Web sites offer.

Unfortunately, what makes a searcher feel more out of control than anything is when the search engine says "no results." It’s like finding out that you got on the wrong train and that you have to backtrack.

Many advanced search interfaces encourage the entry of too many parameters, leading to a "not found." Rutgers University found that searchers can’t predict the effect of changing their queries, which leads to a level of helplessness.

Don’t mistake providing lots of control with giving searchers the feeling of control-they must be able to predict with confidence what they are getting and where they are going. That’s one of the reasons that multifaceted search is gaining steam over traditional advanced search interfaces.


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About the Author

Copyright Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an IBM Distinguished Engineer, expert on Internet marketing, and the author of Search Engine Marketing, Inc., the best-selling book on search marketing. Mike also writes the popular Biznology newsletter and blog.