How to Search Like a Pro
Thanks to data tracking, search engines are becoming increasingly good at anticipating what users are trying to find. Depending on what they’re searching for, they’ll often show what a user is most likely to click on, which can be helpful or dangerous. That’s why being search-savvy is an important skill for any internet user to have.
With so much information on hand, efficiency is key. To this end, we surveyed 1,068 Americans to learn how adept they are at using search engines; what some of their common search habits are; which search techniques are most popular among different demographics; and how much they trust their search results.
- Sixty-six percent of people were familiar with using quotation marks to refine searches, but only 18% were familiar with using double periods.
- SEO professionals were almost twice as likely to pass our advanced search methods quiz.
- Forty-one percent of searchers reported clicking a result based on the title, compared to only 19% who click based on the website name.
Knowledge of Advanced Searching
One of the ways we gauged participants’ search knowledge was by quizzing them on the meaning of different advanced search methods. Sixty-six percent of them knew that using quotation marks around a phrase would only return search results including that exact phrase. Still, only 18% knew that using multiple periods would return results within a range of numbers (for example, a time span).
We also filtered results by how much time respondents spent online. Not surprisingly, less time spent online equated with a lower quiz score, indicating a lower level of search knowledge. On average, baby boomers spent the least time online and had the lowest scores (30%). The scores of Gen Xers and millennials were very similar, though — 39% and 40%, respectively.
It seems that advanced search techniques were something of a mystery to most of the people we surveyed. Those who considered their computer skills extensive scored an average of 40% on our quiz; those who reported high confidence in their search ability scored even lower at 39%. Results were similarly underwhelming for millennials as a whole, despite this generation growing up in the age of digital technology.
Relevant Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Google Search Operators and Google Search Commands
The Impact of Different Search Methods
Next, we tasked everyone with specific internet searches to see their methods. When asked to search for educational toddler toys, 21% simply searched the phrase educational toddler toys, with no quotation marks. Had they used quotation marks around the word “educational,” their results would only have included those with that particular word, making them more specific.
In a search for entertaining videos with dogs wearing cute clothes, there are many options for implementing advanced search techniques. However, most of our users neglected to use any of those methods. Instead, they relied on the algorithm to figure out if the searcher wanted cute dogs vs. cute clothing or dog clothing vs. videos about clothing.
Similarly, when searching for cute dog clothing to purchase, 15% searched only the phrase, cute dog clothing, with no symbols, punctuation, or mention of the intent to purchase. To narrow down their results, they should have included a phrase such as where to buy. On the other hand, they could have found a broader range of results by including synonyms for the word cute by adding a tilde in front of it (~cute).
When asked to search for recent political news, 23% added the word recent or latest to their search query, but only 2% used advanced search techniques. This might be cause for concern, considering the number of questionable sources one might find in a broad news search and the fact that most people trust search engines as a news source above all other types of media.
Relevant Reading: What is Search Intent? A Complete Guide
The Best Searchers
The vast majority of respondents, 58%, said they learned about internet searching by practicing it independently. The second most common way was through workplace training (19%), followed by self-led coursework (10%), school (8%), and friends or parents (6%). Self-taught students appeared to be the best at internet searching, whether they learned by practicing on their own or through autonomous coursework.
As for our search knowledge quiz, the pass/fail rate varied among respondents working in different industries. Twenty-three percent of people working in the information industry passed the quiz — more than those in any other industry — followed by 22% of SEO professionals. Meanwhile, retail/wholesale and government workers had the highest rate of failure (91%).
In Search We Trust
In the age of data tracking, how much do people trust the relevance and validity of their search results? It turns out that baby boomers might be the wariest: When they found out Google tailored their results to their browsing history, this generation’s perception of search results being “very trustworthy” dropped 18 percentage points. This was much greater than the overall drop perceptions of very reliable results of 11 percentage points.
What about sponsored ads in search results? Google recently reformatted the sponsored ads that appear at the top of the results page to look nearly identical to the organic search results below them, making the two harder to differentiate. Overall, 64% of people said they noticed which search results were sponsored ads.
Among those who passed our advanced search methods quiz, 74% said they noticed. As for the difference between generations, Gen Xers were the most likely to notice (71%), followed by baby boomers (67%) and millennials (59%).
As one might imagine, Google was the most popular search engine, used as a primary resource by 90% of participants. After all, Google is constantly adding advanced features and integrations with its other products. But the Google users we surveyed tended to click on search results for different reasons: The title description was the most common (41%), followed by the snippet text (27%), the site name (19%), and the ranking level on the results page (12%).
Perhaps it’s a good thing that so few said they click based on a search result’s ranking level since the highest-ranking search results aren’t always reliable. Still, an overwhelming 74% said they were unlikely even to view the second search results page. This habit could lead to missing out on some potentially valuable links.
Being search-savvy is an important skill to have. The easier it is to use advanced search methods to sort out the masses of information vying for our attention online, the easier it is for us to buy the right products, separate fact from fiction, and find the most accurate answers to our questions.
If even the most tech-savvy people could use a lesson in search techniques, as our study seems to indicate, the rest of us could probably benefit from brushing up on it as well! Head over to Semrush.com to see how search engines guide traffic around the internet and how important it is to understand search rules.
Methodology and Limitations
We used Amazon Mechanical Turk to collect responses from 1,068 people in the United States. Fifty-three percent of our participants identified as men, 46% identified as women, and roughly 1% identified as nonbinary or nonconforming. Participants ranged from 19 to 78, with a mean of 40 and a standard deviation of 12.4. Those who reported no current employment or who failed an attention-check question were disqualified.
Generation X made up 23% of our respondents, and millennials were 55%. It is possible with more baby boomers and generation Z respondents, who made up 13% and 9% of our sample, respectively, we could have gained greater insight into these populations.
The data we are presenting rely on self-report. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include, but are not limited to, the following: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.
Fair Use Statement
Our study offers some helpful insights to make the internet a safer, more accessible place to navigate. We offer these findings freely, and if you’d like to share our study or any part of it with others that might find it helpful, please do so for noncommercial purposes only and kindly include a link back to this page.