Search Engines Learning from Advanced Searchers?

There’s been a fair amount of research centered around looking at data involving user interactions with commercial search engines that may be helpful to those search engines in ranking and recommending pages.

But some searchers may be better at finding relevant results than others. Understanding differences between different searchers, and their searching strategies may be helpful to those search engines.

A study from Microsoft Research, Investigating the Querying and Browsing Behavior of Advanced Search Engine Users (pdf), attempts to better understand how people with greater experience in conducting searches interact with a search engine to see if that knowledge can help others with less experience.

Their research involved looking at the interaction logs of advanced search engine users, and the logs of those with less experience. They tell us that there are

…marked differences in the queries, result clicks, post-query browsing, and search success of users we classify as advanced (based on their use of query operators), relative to those classified as non-advanced.

Many searchers don’t use quotation marks around phrases, plus and minus signs in front of some query terms, and other search operators that limit searches to specific sites or domain types or file types.

The researchers tell us that they are focusing upon three questions in their analysis:

(i) Is there a relationship between the use of advanced syntax and other characteristics of a search?

(ii) Is there a relationship between the use of advanced syntax and post-query navigation behaviors?

(iii) Is there a relationship between the use of advanced syntax and measures of search success?

There are two goals with this research – helping support advanced searchers with the types of behavior that they exhibit, and seeing if less advanced searchers can benefit and become more successful in their searches.

The data used in the study was collected from the interaction logs of consenting Web users during a 13 week period, from January to April 2006, recorded anonymously. They also looked at relevance judgments of documents from trained human judges to determine the relevance of pages visited by the consenting Web users.

In total, they looked at interaction logs of 586,029 unique users, submitting millions of queries to Google, Yahoo!, and MSN Search.

The main findings comparing search behavior of advanced users to non-advanced users, is that advanced search engine users:

  • Query less frequently in a session
  • Compose longer queries
  • Click further down the result list
  • Submit more queries per day
  • Are less likely to click on a result
  • Repeat queries more often

Amongst some of the conclusions from this study is that encouraging users to use some of the advanced search query operators might be a good approach at improving satisfaction with search results. Using data about the interactions of advanced users might also be helpful in document ranking, page recommendation, or even user training.

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