Sunday, November 18, 2007

Impress Your Professor: We Are All Lab Rats

First of all, I wanted to apologize to everyone for the tardiness of this submission. Due to confusion on my part, I did not know it was my turn to write the weekly “Impress Your Professor” piece. For some reason, I thought my turn was in December. So please forgive me if, despite my belated publication, I fail to impress any of you.

This week, I decided to read Characterizing Web Users’ Online Information Behavior. It appears in the November 2007 issue of the “Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.” Now, I will be the first to admit that this article was not the most entertaining read. However, it is an extremely useful article for those of us who haven’t realized just how scientific information science can get.

The authors of this article are particularly interested in one thing: Is it possible to characterize individuals and their underlying motivations for seeking information on the basis of their activity on the web? Can you tell if someone is an experienced web user or if someone is just browsing or searching just by looking at the web pages they visited and seeing how long they spent on each of those pages? These guys seem to think so.

The authors gathered the clickstreams of 2,022 users and broke down the data primarily on the basis of three dimensions: number of categories of websites explored (width); number of sites visited per category (length); and number of pages downloaded per site (depth). They then analyzed the data to see if they could find any discernable relationships. They did.

The three dimensions are positively correlated. The more categories of websites a person visits, the greater the number of websites within a category they will visit, and the greater the number of pages within a website they will visit. Did you get that? It’s not supposed to be poetic. It’s supposed to be scientific.

The dimensions are negatively associated with the tendency to use search engines. Roughly speaking whenever we use search engine sites, the set of websites we look at tends to be less diverse, the number of websites for any particular category we look at tends to decrease, and the number of pages we look at for any particular website we visit also tends to decrease. The theory seems to be that when we use search engines we have a better idea of what we’re looking for. Once we find our answer, we tend to not look any further. When we’re browsing we’re more likely to explore a little deeper.

The study also seems to suggest that people who use the web more frequently (i.e. those who “consume more information”) are more likely to explore more website categories, navigate more sites within a category, view more pages within a website, not use search engines, and spend less time viewing each page. Experienced users, it seems, know how to glean information more quickly from web pages and don’t depend as much on Google or Yahoo! to find websites. Just so you know: I used Google to navigate my way to this website. Now, is that because I’m an inexperienced web user or because I happened to be searching? I guess I’ll have to analyze my clickstream.

Finally by comparing overlapping usage between different individuals, it was possible to identify a set of “core” websites (i.e. popular websites) and a set of “peripheral” websites (i.e. unpopular websites). It seems that typically the majority of people visiting these “peripheral” websites are browsing rather than searching the web. The periphery tends to attract users whose web usage has greater scope and greater depth (typically heavy web users).

If you’re curious why anyone would be interested in this sort of thing, other than librarians, consider that there’s a lot of money to be made in the online advertising business. Internet advertising earned $15.2 billion in the first 9 months of 2007. Based on the research from this article, you could conclude that banner ads are generally better for reaching heavy web users than light web users.

Why don’t we have banner ads on this web site?

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