When Search Engines Become Answer Engines

by Jakob Nielsen on August 16, 2004

Summary: The website is becoming a less prominent locus of experience as people use search engines to bring up answers to their current questions. How can sites cope with masses of freeloaders?


Increasingly, the Internet user experience is becoming one of dipping a toe into websites rather than truly "visiting" them. Using search engines as their Web interface, people simply grab query-related nuggets from sites, but don't engage with the sites themselves.

The search engine has always been an important tool for users. Ten years ago, when I was trying to understand why people used the Web despite its lousy usability, I asked everyone who came by our lab two questions: What were they doing online? What were their favorite websites? Answers were strikingly diverse: I found no common interests or websites. People's pursuits ranged from golf to knitting to Linux to military history, and their favorite sites varied just as widely. In fact, there was only one commonality among the answers: every user nominated a search engine among their top two or three sites.

The conclusion was clear: the Web's strength comes from narrowly targeted sites that provide users with highly specialized information that they need or care about passionately. It was also clear that search was a hugely important general-interest service, because even back when the Web had only 30,000 sites, locating specialized ones was nearly impossible without help.

Subsequent studies have confirmed these early conclusions: users continue to pursue their own idiosyncratic goals and depend on a generic service — search — for guidance. In recent testing, we found that users started at a search engine 88% of the time when we gave them a new task to complete on the Web.

Answer-Focused Search: Resource Discovery Gives Way to Information Snacking

A major change over the years has been a declining emphasis on using search to identify good sites as such (which used to be known as "resource discovery"). Rather than hunt for sites to explore and use in depth, users now hunt for specific answers. The Web as a whole has thus become one agglomerated resource for people who use search engines to dredge up specific pages related to specific needs, without caring which sites supply the pages.

Search engines have essentially become answer engines. Their job is no longer resource discovery, but rather to answer users' questions. Ask Jeeves was on to something with its original Q&A interface and now has an interesting approach to showing answers directly on the SERP (search engine results page).

This changing behavior is explained by information foraging theory: the easier it is to track down new resources, the less time users will spend at each resource. Thus, the increasing improvement in search quality over time is driving the trend toward the answer engine. Always-on connections have a similar effect, because they encourage information snacking and shorter sessions. Finally, Web browsers' despicably weak support for bookmarks/favorites has contributed to the decline in users' interest in building a list of favorite sites.

It's a testament to the Web's growth that users can now view it as integrated whole and not have to bother with websites; they assume that anything they want to know is available somewhere. They just have to ask.

"Websites" weren't really a tangible concept until 1993 anyway. The pre-Mosaic Web in 1991 and 1992 was exactly that: a web of information where the fundamental unit was the article, not the server hosting a particular webpage. This new user behavior is therefore a reversion to the Web's original vision to some extent, though not completely because users still have some favorite sites that they treat as resources in their own right.

Implications for Websites

For search engines, becoming the user interface to the Web's embarrassment of riches is good news. It's also good news for users, who can find answers by visiting a few search hits rather than enduring the obscure design and poor navigation found on many sites.

But is this good for websites? No.

There is very little value in giving answers to users who don't know or care who provides the service.

Ecommerce sites are somewhat of an exception, because they often get a sale from users dipping a toe into their catalog. Ecommerce differs from other websites in having confirmation and fulfillment stages that follow up on users' initial visit, and these steps can grow the site's mindshare. Thus, closing the first sale is one of the most important drivers of subsequent ecommerce sales.

It would be self-defeating for ecommerce sites to refuse shopbots, prohibit deep links, or employ other tricks that require users to enter at the homepage and spend time navigating the site. Any barrier between the customer and the product translates into lost sales.

And, even sites that don't sell must accept the trend toward users' answer-seeking behavior. Walling yourself off from the Web's web-like nature won't solve the problem.

So what should you do?

  • Realize that unique visitors are an irrelevant statistic. Most such visitors are sampling a single page to get an answer, rather than engaging with your site. Instead of tracking them, count loyal users as a key metric for site success.
  • Offer fly-trap content . Such content attracts users by providing narrowly focused pages that provide clear answers to common problems. These pages should perform well in search engine optimization (SEO); remember to write clear headlines.
  • Embellish the answer with rich "see also" links to related content and services. Global navigation won't do the trick; answer-seekers will ignore it. Remember, they are not interested in your site. But contextual links will make the most eager users dig deeper — and the eager ones are the people you'll want to keep as prospects for your for-pay services. See-also links can be embedded (as I've done here) or you can place them at the end of the article , where they serve as a follow-up call to action. The latter gives you the opportunity to let people know that you're actually selling something, and not just handing out free information.
  • Go beyond pure information and provide analysis and insight, preferably from a unique perspective and with a striking personality that supports your positioning. A percentage of users will appreciate your perspective and want more, even after they've found the answer to their immediate question.
  • Publish a newsletter with additional tips and useful information. Email newsletters are a relationship medium and offer a more personal user experience than pageviewing.

Avoiding Freeloaders

People who dip into your website are basically worthless to you, but they don't do much harm either. At current prices for Web hosting, it costs 0.003 cents to serve a pageview. To do the math, we'll use a simple example:

  • Consider a B2B site, where a customer has a lifetime value of $1,000.
  • Assuming a 1% conversion rate from loyal users into paying customers, it's worth $10 to get a loyal user.
  • You can thus afford to waste 330,000 pageviews on freeloaders to attract one loyal user.
  • Assuming that a toe-dipping user consumes three pageviews on average, you need only convert one out of every 110,000 freeloaders into a loyal user to make money in the end.

If you already have the content, there's no economic benefit to turning freeloaders away because the marginal cost of serving up extra pageviews is so low.

Even so, your Internet strategy should include two elements to discourage freeloaders:

  • When you create fly-trap content, emphasize topics and keywords that are likely to convert well into loyal users. No reason to spend money generating material that'll mainly attract freeloaders.
  • If running pay-per-click search engine advertising (PPC), you pay real money for every person visiting your site, so you want to avoid ads that attract freeloaders. Three tips:
    • Mention the product's price in the ad (especially if you're high-end).
    • Use B2B jargon in the ad to discourage visits from non-business users. (Unless, of course, you are a B2C site.) If you are selling $300,000 telephony systems for enterprise installation, you don't want to pay $2 per click from people looking for cheap long distance service for their home.
    • Use negative keywords to keep your ad from being seen by users who are searching for free or cheap services. For example, add "-free, -cheap" to your keyword list. For most businesses, it's a good idea to add "-sex, -porn, -nude" as well. (See more guidelines for B2B sites.)

It's unfortunate that users now care less about websites, and mainly treat them as an undifferentiated pool of answers. But, that's the new Internet. As always, recognizing users' actual behavior is the way to prosper.


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