From E-Sex to sets. Note that we removed duplicate  
  queries from the initial results, so val-  
  ues calculated in Tables 2 and 3 reflect  
  the distilled set of distinct queries.  
  E-Commerce: Web RESULTS  
  Table 2 shows little change over the  
  four-year period in terms per query,  
  Search Changes queries per user, or pages per query—  
  although queries per user took a dip  
  in 1999.  
  More than 50 percent of 2001 users  
  Amanda Spink, Pennsylvania State University submitted a single short query, about  
  20 percent submitted two queries, and  
  Bernard J. Jansen, US Army War College  
  another 29 percent entered three or  
  Dietmar Wolfram, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee  
  more unique queries. Users typically  
  Tefko Saracevic, Rutgers University    
    do not add or delete many terms in  
      their subsequent queries.  
  he Web has become a world-    
  wide source of information                                                                                                                                                                    
  and a mainstream business                           Search                                 topics                             have                               shifted,                                        
  tool. Are human information                                                                                                                                                            
Tneeds and searching behaviors                   but                     there                 is                   little                               change                       in                            
evolving along with Web content? As                     user                           search                                             behaviors.                                                                    
part of a body of research studying this                                                                                                                                                              
question, we have analyzed three data                                                                                                                                                                    
sets culled from more than one million                                                                                                                                                                    
queries submitted by more than      
200,000 users of the Excite Web search is not an easy task. While using data    
  A fluctuating percent of users modify  
engine, collected in September 1997, only from Excite is a limitation on our   queries, with 52 percent modifying  
December 1999, and May 2001. study, our ongoing analysis of this   queries in 1997, declining to 39.6 per-  
  This longitudinal benchmark study search engine over a four-year period   cent in 1999, and increasing to 44.6 per-  
shows that public Web searching is nevertheless provides a baseline for   cent in 2001. Users tend to move from  
evolving in certain directions. Speci- insights into Web searching trends.   broad to narrow terms when modifying  
fically, search topics have shifted from Each Excite query log record con-   their queries by changing some individ-  
entertainment and sex to commerce tained three fields:   ual terms. However, the total number of  
and people, but there is little change in     terms often remains the same.  
query lengths or frequency per user. • Identification—anonymous code   The continuing use of one short sim-  
SCOPE OF STUDY assigned by the Excite server to a   ple query suggests that information  
user machine.   content providers can expect to reach  
  Excite ( is a • Time of day—in hours, minutes,   Web users by targeting specific high-  
major Internet media company offering and seconds.   frequency words such as “free,” “sex,”  
Web searching and a personalization • Query—user terms as entered.   “games,” “weather,” and “maps.”  
portal. Its searches are based on the     Fewer results per query  
exact terms a user enters in a query. We analyzed the following user data:    
Capitalization is disregarded with the     The trend since 1997 shows users  
exception of logical commands AND, • Sessions—entire query sequence   viewing fewer pages of results per  
OR, and AND NOT. There is no stem- by a user.   query. An Excite results page contains  
ming. Our study is limited to analysis • Queries—oneormoreenteredterms.   10 ranked Web sites, and the percent-  
of users’ queries, as we had no access to • Terms—any string of characters   age of Excite users who examined only  
data on the Web sites they accessed. bounded by white space.   one page of results per query increased  
  Obtaining large-scale query logs     from 28.6 percent in 1997 to 50.5 per-  
from commercial Web search engines Table 1 summarizes the three data   cent in 2001. By 2001, more than 70  
      March 2002 107

W e b T e c h n o l o g i e s

Table 1. Excite data sets for 1997, 1999, and 2001.

Data set Sessions Queries Terms
19971 211,063 1,025,908 1,277,763
19992 325,711 1,025,910 1,500,500
2001 262,025 1,025,910 1,538,120

1.B.J. Jansen, A. Spink, and T. Saracevic, “Real Life, Real Users, and Real Needs: A Study and Analysis of User Queries on the Web,” Information Processing and Management, vol. 86, no. 2, 2000, pp. 207-227.

2.A. Spink et al., “Searching the Web: The Public and Their Queries,” J. Am. Soc. Information Science and Technology, vol. 53, no. 2, 2001, pp. 226-234.

Table 2. Comparative statistics for Excite Web query data sets— one million queries per study.

Variables 1997 1999 2001
Mean terms per query 2.4 2.4 2.6
Terms per query      
1 term 26.3% 29.8% 26.9%
2 terms 31.5% 33.8% 30.5%
3+ terms 43.1% 36.4% 42.6%
Mean queries per user 2.5 1.9 2.3
Mean pages viewed per query 1.7 1.6 1.7
Pages viewed per query      
1 page 28.6% 42.7% 50.5%
2 pages 19.5% 21.2% 20.3%
3+ pages 51.9% 36.1% 29.2%
Users modifying queries 52.0% 39.6% 44.6%
Session size      
1 query 48.4% 20.8% 30.8%
2 queries 60.4% 19.8% 19.8%
3+ queries 55.4% 19.3% 25.3%
Boolean queries 5.0% 5.0% 10.0%
Terms not repeated in the data set 57.1% 61.6% 61.7%
Use of 100 most frequently occurring query terms 17.9% 19.3% 22.0%

percent of Excite users looked at two pages or fewer.

Was it that users were satisfied with the results and had no need to view more pages? The trend toward viewing fewer results, combined with the small number of pages viewed and queries per session, suggests that Excite users want more relevant Web sites per total number of sites ret- rieved. Some users continue to have low tolerance for wading through large retrievals.

The continuing low and declining level of user interactivity is a challenge for users and Web search engine design- ers alike. Counter to these trends

toward greater simplicity, the use of Boolean operators increased from 5 percent to 10 percent from 1997 to 2001. A recent longitudinal study of 20,000 Internet users reported little change in Web searching session times (A.L. Montgomery and C. Faloutsos, “Identifying Web Browsing Trends and Patterns,” Computer, July 2001, pp. 94-95).

Despite some high-frequency terms, an unusually large number of terms either are never repeated or are used with low frequency. These include per- sonal names, spelling errors, non- English terms, and Web-specific terms such as URLs.

The Web query vocabulary contains a very large number of different terms compared with large English texts in general. The language of queries has unique characteristics, which content providers can benefit from studying.

Topic shift

How did Web searching topics change from 1997 to 2001? We classi- fied a random sample of 2,414 queries from 1997; 2,539 queries from 1999; and 2,453 queries from 2001 into 11 nonmutually exclusive, general topic categories. Table 3 shows the results.

There is an ongoing shift in search topics. From 1997 to 2001, categories such as “Entertainment or recreation” and “Health or sciences” moved down the ranking. “Commerce, travel, employment, or economy” and “People, places, or things” moved up.

In 1997, approximately one in six Web queries was about sex. By 2001, this was down to one in 12, and many of these related to human sexuality, not pornography. By 1999, “Commerce, travel, employment, or economy,” “People, places, or things,” and “Computers or Internet” moved closer to the top of the list, while “Sex and pornography” and “Entertainment or recreation” moved down.

The shift to e-commerce queries coincided with changes in information distribution on the publicly indexed Web. By 1999, some 83 percent of Web servers contained commercial content. By 2001, Web searching and Web con- tent continued to evolve from an enter- tainment to a business medium.

Interestingly, non-English queries and unclassifiable queries have nearly tripled since 1997. Many queries are single terms such as “naz;” numbers such as “182;” or acronyms, such as “TOF.” Without additional terms, it is difficult for Web search engines to interpret such queries.

This longitudinal benchmark study extends previous research suggesting little movement toward longer or more frequent queries (D. Wolfram et al., “Vox Populi: The Public Search of

108 Computer

Table 3. Distribution of query samples across general topic categories.

Rank 1997 Excite data set (2,414 queries) 1999 Excite data set (2,539 queries) 2001 Excite data set (2,453 queries)
1 19.9% Entertainment or recreation 24.5% Commerce, travel, employment, 24.7% Commerce, travel, employment,
        or economy   or economy
2 16.8% Sex and pornography 20.3% People, places, or things 19.7% People, places, or things
3 13.3% Commerce, travel, employment, 10.9% Computers or Internet 11.3% Non-English or unknown
    or economy        
4 12.5% Computers or Internet 7.8% Health or sciences 9.6% Computers or Internet
5 9.5% Health or sciences 7.5% Sex and pornography 8.5% Sex and pornography
6 6.7% People, places, or things 7.5% Entertainment or recreation 7.5% Health or sciences
7 5.7% Society, culture, ethnicity, or religion 6.8% Non-English or unknown 6.6% Entertainment or recreation
8 5.6% Education or humanities 5.3% Education or humanities 4.5% Education or humanities
9 5.4% Performing or fine arts 4.2% Society, culture, ethnicity, or religion 3.9% Society, culture, ethnicity, or religion
10 4.1% Non-English or unknown 1.6% Government 2.0% Government
11 3.4% Government 1.1% Performing or fine arts 1.1% Performing or fine arts

the Web,” J. Am. Soc. Information Science and Technology, vol. 52, no. 12, 2001, pp. 1073-1074).


Our results show that Web queries from a major commercial search engine continue to be simple in structure with a minority of queries incorporating advanced search features. Many queries that do contain advanced searching operators are mistakes, such as noncapitalized Boolean operators.

Despite commonly retrieving a large number of Web sites, users tend to view few result pages per query. This trend appears to be increasing with the major- ity of Web users not browsing beyond the first or second page of results.

The language of Web queries is rich and increasingly varied, including peo- ple’s names, acronyms, and non-English terms, as the subject distribution of Web queries moves closer to increasingly commercial and international Web site content.

Many aspects of searching have remained constant even as the Web evolves in size, content, and services. People are seeking to resolve their infor- mation problems via search engines that cater to human-computer interac- tion on a massive scale. We need a new generation of Web searching tools based on a more thorough understand- ing of human information behaviors.

Such tools would assist users with query construction and modification, spelling, and analytical problems that limit their ability or willingness to persist in find- ing the information they need.

As the Web evolves into an interna- tional economic resource, users encounter corresponding risks if they blindly trust the capabilities of Web search engines to retrieve good data from a few key words. Better Web design must be met on the user side by more effective search behaviors.

ur results provide important in- Osights into the state of Web infor- mation and search, which may affect economic, social, and political issues in the future. Critically, we see lit- tle change in user search strategies, cou- pled with ongoing user frustration with the search process. These results pose challenges to Web designers and to organizations that depend on increas- ing Web access by business, medical, educational, and scientific users, as well

as to Web users themselves.

Our studies are intended to motivate the design of more effective tools to counter the large-scale public search- ing behaviors that remain the same even as the Web becomes more com- plex. In addition, our work may encourage users to develop more effec- tive searches. We are currently expand-

ing our study with analysis of large- scale query logs from, a European Web search engine. ■


We thank Doug Cutting, Jack Xu, and Soo Young Rieh from Excite@, and C. Lee Giles and Dan Lorence of Pennsylvania State Uni- versity for their useful comments and suggestions.

Amanda Spink is an associate profes- sor of information sciences and tech- nology at Pennsylvania State University. Contact her at

Bernard J. Jansen is a major in the US Army, currently in the Chief Informa- tion Office, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa. Contact him at

Dietmar Wolfram is an associate pro- fessor at the School of Information Stud- ies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact him at dwolfram@

Tefko Saracevic is a professor in the School of Communication, Informa- tion, and Library Studies at Rutgers University. Contact him at tefko@

March 2002 109