Study: Net users confused about search

Millions of Americans use search engines, but most know little about how they work or how results are presented.

Millions of Internet users are hooked on search--but they know little about how a search engine works or how results are presented.

A new survey released Sunday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only one in six search users can distinguish between unpaid and sponsored results. Yet nearly half of all users said they would stop using a search engine if they thought it wasn't clear about how it presented paid results.

Paid search is a key source of revenue for giants like Google and Yahoo. But according to the Pew study, only 38 percent of users understand the distinction between unbiased and paid search.

"In a sense, many search engine users are a little bit like kids with a fancy new toy; they want to go play with it immediately and have a good time, but most don't want to read the instructions or much care to know how it works," Deborah Fallows, author of the report, said in a statement.

The study found that nearly 56 percent of Americans who are online use search engines on any given day--but about half the information they search for is trivial. The most popular searches for 2004 were dominated by popular culture, news events, trends and seasonal topics, all which are likely to return acceptable results.

Google's top query for 2004 was "Britney Spears," while America Online listed "horoscopes" as the most popular keyword. Most Yahoo users searched for "American Idol."

Pew said Internet users tend to choose a favorite search engine and stick with it. The study found that 44 percent of consumers regularly use a single search engine, and 48 percent use two or three. But just 7 percent try out more than three.

"Search engines seem to be working for everyone," Fallows said. "The large group of naive searchers is happy because they easily find quick answers to easy questions; the smaller group of sophisticated searchers is happy because they know what to expect of search engines and how to use them smartly."

Younger Internet users--below 30 years old--are more actively engaged in search activity, according to the study. They search more often and consider themselves confident and successful in their searching. Older users are less likely to trust search engines and less comfortable with the concept of having paid or sponsored results, the study said.

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