Electronic information queries are an everyday tool, in both private and commercial contexts. Who directed the last Star Wars movie? Google knows. How many leads did we generate at the last trade fair? A little research in CRM will turn up the answer quickly. What should I give my spouse for our anniversary? Let’s see what Amazon suggests. And what’s happening in Syria? Your favourite daily newspaper has a search function to help you find out.

How do we search?

Nowadays, most questions can be answered in just a short time. Electronic information searches have become so much a part of our everyday activities that we hardly think about them anymore. Everything seems to happen automatically. But what factors influence search behaviour, search experiences, and successful searches exactly? As big as advancements have been in the last decade, the potential for further optimization is still enormous. The growing volume of data worldwide requires ever more efficient and intuitive search options. One elementary factor influencing search behaviour comes up again and again in this context: time.

100 milliseconds: the clock’s running…

To be more specific: delays. Studies have shown that even minimum time delays of approx. 100 milliseconds influence and can change search behaviour on Google. Our tolerance for delays is also constantly sinking. While the tolerance threshold for time delays in 1990 was 8 to 10 seconds, by the year 2000 it was 2 to 4 seconds. Even if the exact information in different studies does vary; the significant decrease in acceptable estimated waiting time bears out across all of them.

Costs of information searches

In information retrieval, various theories deal with time as an influential factor in informational searches. The Information Foraging Theory and the Search Economy Theory are good examples of such theories. They look at different cost factors in informational searches. For instance, there are cognitive costs (how much complex thinking does it take to formulate a search query?) and physical costs (how many clicks or keystrokes do I need to reach the information?). The time needed to enter the search request or navigate through results is another relevant cost factor. Ideally, informational systems would keep all of these cost factors as low as possible.

Exciting experiment

Researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland reported exciting effects of time delay on the behaviour of individuals searching for information. In one experiment, they manipulated both wait time after entering a search request in a search engine to the production of a results list, and wait time until access was granted to a document from this results list. The results of the study indicated that time delays in formulating a search query caused users to pose fewer questions and take more time to look at a list of results, as well as view more documents. On the other hand, a time delay in access to documents caused searchers to formulate more queries and view fewer documents per results page. As is common in scientific contexts, however, the study does have some methodical limitations, so we should take the results with a grain of salt. What is clear, however, is that time delays do influence our behaviour and our strategies in searching for information and, therefore, likely influence results quality.

You’ll read more about the conclusions we can draw from this study, and why quicker isn’t always better, soon here on the EASY blog.

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