Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Search Engine Use 2012

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Search engines remain popular—and users are more satisfied than ever with the quality of search results—but many are anxious about the collection of personal information by search engines and other websites.

Most search users disapprove of personal information being collected for search results or for targeted advertising

The Pew Internet & American Life survey in February 2012 included several questions probing how respondents feel about search engines and other websites collecting information about them and using it to either shape their search results or target advertising to them.  Clear majorities of internet and search users disapprove of these practices in all the contexts we probed.

Specifically, the survey posed the following choices to search engine users:

65% say… It’s a BAD thing if a search engine collected information about your searches and then used it to rank your future search results, because it may limit the information you get online and what search results you see
29% say… It’s a GOOD thing if a search engine collected information about your searches and then used it to rank your future search results, because it gives you results that are more relevant to you
73% say they would… NOT BE OKAY with a search engine keeping track of your searches and using that information to personalize your future search results because you feel it is an invasion of privacy
23% say they would… Be OKAY with a search engine keeping track of your searches and using that information to personalize your future search results, even if it means they are gathering information about you

All internet users were posed the following choice regarding targeted advertising:

68% say… I’m NOT OKAY with targeted advertising because I don’t like having my online behavior tracked and analyzed
28% say… I’m OKAY with targeted advertising because it means I see advertisements and get information about things I’m really interested in

Overall views of search engine performance are very positive

For more than a decade, Pew Internet data has consistently shown that search engine use is one of the most popular online activities, rivaled only by email as an internet pursuit. In January 2002, 52% of all Americans used search engines. In February 2012 that figure grew to 73% of all Americans. On any given day in early 2012, more than half of adults using the internet use a search engine (59%). That is double the 30% of internet users who were using search engines on a typical day in 2004. And people’s frequency of using search engines has jumped dramatically.

Moreover, users report generally good outcomes and relatively high confidence in the capabilities of search engines:

  • 91% of search engine users say they always or most of the time find the information they are seeking when they use search engines
  • 73% of search engine users say that most or all the information they find as they use search engines is accurate and trustworthy
  • 66% of search engine users say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information
  • 55% of search engine users say that, in their experience, the quality of search results is getting better over time, while just 4% say it has gotten worse
  • 52% of search engine users say search engine results have gotten more relevant and useful over time, while just 7% report that results have gotten less relevant

These findings are a backdrop for the ongoing policy debates about privacy, collection of personal information online, and the enthusiasm for targeted search and targeted advertising among companies. They also arise as Google implements a new privacy policy in which information about users’ online behavior when they are signed into Google’s programs can be collected and combined into a cohesive user profile. This includes material from Google’s search engine, the Google+ social networking site, YouTube video-sharing site, and Gmail.

Most internet users say they do not know how to limit the information that is collected about them by a website

Just 38% of internet users say they are generally aware of ways they themselves can limit how much information about them is collected by a website.  Among this group, one common strategy people use to limit personal data collection is to delete their web history: 81% of those who know ways to manage the capture of their data do this. Some 75% of this group uses the privacy settings of websites to control what’s captured about them. And 65% change their browser settings to limit the information that is collected.1

Overall, search users are confident in their abilities

Most search users say they are confident in their own search abilities, and find what they are looking for most of the time.  More than half of search users (56%) say they are very confident in their search abilities, while only 6% say they are not too or not all confident.  And the vast majority of search users report being able to find what they are looking for always (29%) or most of the time (62%).

Positive search experiences are more common than negative experiences

Asked about different experiences they have had using search engines, more users report positive experiences than negative. They said in their use of search engines they had:

  • learned something new or important that really helped them or increased their knowledge (86% of search users have had this experience)
  • found a really obscure fact or piece of information they thought they would not be able to find (50%)
  • gotten conflicting information in search results and not been able to figure out what is correct (41%)
  • gotten so much information in a set of results that you feel overwhelmed (38%)
  • found that critical information is missing from search results (34%)

Google continues to be the most popular search engine, by a wide margin

Google continues to dominate the list of most used search engines.  Asked which search engine they use most often, 83% of search users say Google.  The next most cited search engine is Yahoo, mentioned by just 6% of search users.  When we last asked this question in 2004, the gap between Google and Yahoo was much narrower, with 47% of search users saying Google was their engine of choice and 26% citing Yahoo.

About the survey

These are the findings from a survey conducted from January 20-February 19, 2012 among 2,253 adults age 18 and over, including 901 cell phone interviews. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

  1. There are a range of other strategies that users can employ, including the deletion of cookies and the use of anonymyzing software and proxies that were not part of this survey.

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