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Search Engines, Browsers Still Confusing Many Web Users

  |  February 14, 2001   |  Comments

We interrupt your dream of using the wireless Internet to sell a wide range of products to millions of consumers using pocket-sized phones to bring you these findings from Alexa Research: An alarming number of Internet users have no idea how to use a Web browser.

A two-year study by Alexa Research has revealed, that based on their searching habits, an alarming number of Web users are not particularly efficient at reaching their online destinations. Rather than entering a URL into the address field of their Web browsers, millions of Internet users enter the name of the site they want into the search box of their start-up homepage or other search engine.

The study also found that the most popular term people search for online is "sex." Alexa's findings are based on an examination of more than 42 million search pages viewed in aggregate by users of the Alexa toolbar at 10 of the Internet's leading portals and search engines -- altavista.com, aol.com, excite.com, go.com, google.com, goto.com, lycos.com, msn.com, netscape.com, and yahoo.com -- between March 1999 and January 2001.

"Based on the results of this study, we believe that the Web is still a technical hurdle many people have not yet cleared," said Matthew Work, vice president of Alexa Research. "The prevalence of sex-related search terms probably isn't a shock to most people, but we were surprised by the number of people that accessed Web sites by entering site names as search terms rather than just typing them in the address field of their browser."

Four of the top 10 search terms sought by users in the study were Web site names or addresses. Hotmail -- whether entered as "hotmail," "hotmail.com" or "www.hotmail.com" -- was the second most popular term sought. Yahoo (including "yahoo.com" and "www.yahoo.com") was third. EBay (including "ebay.com" and "www.ebay.com") and AOL (including "aol.com" and "www.aol.com") were ninth and tenth, respectively. Also among the top 50 were Excite.com, AltaVista, Amazon.com, and MSN.

"This study shows that for many, there's a conceptual misunderstanding of how to effectively navigate the Web," Work said. "Some people think that their homepage is the Web, that they have to go through their homepage in order to get to the site they want, without realizing that any Web site can be accessed directly. This notion is supported by our Web traffic popularity rankings, where eight of the top 10 sites are portals and/or search engines."

Sex-related terms remain quite popular among Internet searches. "Sex" was the most popular term for which people searched. Of all the terms searched for online, 0.3289% -- or roughly 1 of every 300 terms -- were "sex." People search for "sex" more often than "games," "music," "travel," "jokes," "cars," "jobs," "weather" and "health" combined. "Porn" (along with "porno" and "pornography") was the fourth most popular search term. "Nude" (and "nudes"), "xxx," "Playboy" and "erotic stories" (and "erotica") were also among the top 20.

Compare the Alexa list of the top search terms to the Lycos Top 50 search terms for the week ending Feb. 10, 2001, which excludes pornographic terms, general terms (such as "movies" and "weather"), computer terms (MP3, screensavers, chat, etc), and company names. The Lycos list begins with a top 10 of "Valentine's Day," "Dragonball," "The IRS," "Britney Spears," "Napster," "Taxes," "XFL," "Tattoos," "Cruise-Kidman Divorce," and "Survivor."

The most popular celebrities searched for, according to Alexa, were Britney Spears, Pamela Anderson, Backstreet Boys, Jennifer Lopez, and Eminem. Pokemon was the most popular specific toy or game searched. Playboy was the most popular media property.

Another interesting finding from the study is how diffuse the list of search terms is, compared to how concentrated the Web is overall. More than 9.1 million unique terms were searched for during the period of the study.

"The top 50 search terms account for only 2.73 percent of all search term page views, which reflects how diverse people's interests are," said Jason Maxham, lead data miner at Alexa Research. "By contrast, the 50 most popular Web sites receive 25 percent of all traffic -- that's more than eight times as concentrated as the search terms. This concentration reveals that in the bigger picture, people still converge on the same batch of sites."

20 Most Popular Search Terms
at 10 Leading Portals and Search Engines

March 1999 to January 2001
Rank Search Term
Percent of
All Searches
1. sex 0.3289%
2. hotmail/hotmail.com/www.hotmail.com 0.2131%
3. yahoo/yahoo.com/www.yahoo.com 0.2044%
4. porn/porno/pornography 0.1402%
5. chat/chatrooms 0.1233%
6. mp3 0.0935%
7. horoscopes/horoscope 0.0800%
8. ebay/ebay.com/www.ebay.com 0.0731%
9. aol/aol.com/www.aol.com 0.0714%
10. games 0.0659%
11. map/maps 0.0585%
12. pokemon 0.0549%
13. nude/nudes 0.0541%
14. music 0.0505%
15. xxx 0.0473%
16. travel 0.0470%
17. screensaver/screensavers 0.0458%
18. lyrics/song lyrics 0.0455%
19. playboy 0.0430%
20. free 0.0426%
Source: Alexa Research

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