Is Search Still the Dominant Way People Use to Answer Questions?

Have you ever overheard a friend trying to remember that actor’s name from that one movie with the scary bad guy or a co-worker hopelessly wondering how to properly sauté spinach and you just want to say “Google it!” but it almost seems too obvious? While search engines provide instantaneous access to information, sometimes we yearn for a more personal answer from a trusted resource or a friend. In these circumstances one might turn to a social network, blast out an email or even go retro and make a phone call. To see how instincts can steer the decision-making process, we surveyed 400 people to find out where they collect their answers. We asked our survey participants the following:

For the following questions, please tell us, based on pure instinct, what would be your first, second, and third choice for finding answers to your daily queries.

  1. Contact Friends Directly (phone call, email, text or instant message…) (Direct)
  2. Contact Friends Using Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Google+…) (Social)
  3. Use a Web Search (Google, Bing, Yahoo…) (Search)

Each of our questions had a certain slant in mind. We made our predictions as to how each question would be answered and our predictions were as follows: predicted-winners Prior to starting this study, we predicted that Search would take the top spot for 4 questions, and that Social and Direct would take 3 each. Much to our surprise, search ended up taking ten out of ten categories: total-questions-won

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What does this mean? It could mean that while social networks are extremely popular, people still rely on search engines for real questions. It could mean that the questions we posed were too heavily in favor of search. It could even mean that the people we surveyed don’t use social media much at all, but as it turns out, that wasn’t the case:

  1. 94% of respondents use Facebook
  2. 69% have asked questions on Facebook
  3. 53% use Twitter
  4. 47% use Google+

It might mean that the respondents are simply not that computer savvy, but when we asked what percentage of time at their job involves computer usage… 42% said between 75-100% and 20% said between 50-75% For those of you who like raw numbers, here is a more detailed look at the results: final chart The weighted results count each 1st place vote at 3 points, each 2nd place vote at 2 points, and each 3rd place votes at 1 point. Even when you tally the votes this way, search still wins 10 out of 10 times. Personally, I really enjoy posing a question on a social network and seeing how my friends chime in with answers that neither I nor a search engine would have come up with. Our best guess as to why search went 10/10 is a timing issue. I love watching my friends’ answers come in, but I also have to wait. Waiting for friends to respond might be too much of a wait for most people in today’s “instant satisfaction” world. Where do you go when you have a head-stumper? We’d love to know. Below is a question-by-question breakdown of the aggregate score for each question. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

About the Author

Eric Enge leads the Digital Marketing practice for Perficient. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO.

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Thoughts on “Is Search Still the Dominant Way People Use to Answer Questions?”

  1. Terry Van Horne

    or it could mean that all those Social gurus who say people frequently ask on Social networking sites… are stating their wishes or their own activity…either way I’ve said that is a whacked statement unsupported by facts for years… tnx for proving it!

  2. I love this. Eric has seen some of my presentations — where I say the biggest reason to create useful content is because people are searching for it. If you help provide answers and solutions to your prospective clients, you will win. Going to start adding this bit of research to my presentations now too!

  3. Instant gratification! I think that’s key. I, too, have enjoyed getting opinions via social media and even the telephone. Often, when we want to make a decision, we want it NOW! I, too, am surprised, however.
    I wouldn’t even imagine going to social to find out when Franklin Roosevelt was born, and 28% of respondents would.
    Excellent study that shows us, again, that SEO is not dead!

  4. Very informative study Eric! This clearly indicates that a majority of people use search engines to get answers to their questions. However, I believe that many tech savvy people use category-specific sites directly rather than searching on Google. For example, if I were to buy an iphone, I’d directly goto Amazon or eBay. If I were to look for some local services, I’d go to Craigslist or Yelp.

  5. I agree with Abhay. Although one might type an initial search query into a search engine, as time passes a user familiarizes themselves with specific sites and go directly to them from then on. For example, IMDB Or Flixster for movies, Yelp or Urbanspoon for dining, etc. But that initial step would be through a search engine, as others have referred to the instant gratification and the multitude of options. Speed, relevance, and options is what appeases the masses.

  6. Terry Van Horne

    If you look around there are “destination sites” in every niche but these were for the most part always traceable back to a SE. That is because often even a direct/personal referral the **discovery** by the referring person was via search engines. That is changing as new users (your children) are just as likely to be using YouTube the Social/ Video Search platform as a conventional SE. The internet/technology is changing so the means to content discovery will evolve with it.

  7. I too would tend to do as Abhay said. I would go directly to the site such as Amazon, iTunes, etc.
    Great article by the way.

  8. For any occasion where I don’t know a specific site (usually the best at the time for my query) I will always use search. Social media always provides too many conflicting opinions to me, whereas search can usually provide hard facts. Like I said though, this only occurs when I don’t know a direct site anyway…

  9. Thanks for the insights. This article covers an issue which I feel has been overlooked by many internet marketing experts. What a person is searching dictates whether search or social is the dominant mechanism. For example, when one searches for professional services like lawyers, doctors, accountants, the breakdown is likely to look like number 3, searching for a plumber during an emergency. Given these results, maybe some of the gurus will now start to provide answers which are more industry-specific. (Eric, I’d enjoy seeing a similar analysis on various types of content marketing which surfaces during a search inquiry.)

  10. Interesting result. Seems to me that people don’t want to bother anybody with such trivial questions. They want to learn and prepare themselves before they start a conversation.

  11. This is great insight. I wouldn’t know where to start on social media for some of these questions. And most of the people I know would be too busy doing other things during a business day. I just wouldn’t want to interrupt.
    Hands down, I google. It’s become a habit.

  12. Eric,
    Good data … Looks like social is ” ideas and opinions” rather than ” Instant Needs” like a plumber….
    Im going to post a goofy question on FB and check the response…… This just looks like fun!!!

  13. Interesting post, it confirms what I’ve been thinking. If people want/need an immediate factual answer, or an “expert” opinion such as a review, they will use the search engines. If they’re looking to get a friend’s opinion, they will use social media. Quite logical really.

  14. I found the post very interesting – I translated the questionnaire to Hungarian (modified only a bit) and we sent out the link. The respondents had to choose only one source of information. In Hungary Google is dominant as search engine, and Facebook as social web.
    The results were mainly the same – only one exception, where direct source won. It was the plumber question. (52% direct, 39% Google.)
    Facebook was quite weak. I was surprised.
    I know that Hungarian is not a well-known language, but the data chart tells a lot:

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