Looking back at Search Queries from 1997

September 6, 2006 at 4:48 pm 2 comments

In light of the recent search query logs released by AOL, I perused some to see what others have been searching for. There’s a bit of voyeur in all of us.

My initial reaction was that search queries have gotten a lot more sophisticated since the 1990s, where common searches were “free downloads” or “britney spears”.

This paper looks at over 1 million queries from the query logs of the Excite search engine from September 1997. The top 25 queries were (in order): and, of, sex, free, the, nude, pictures, in, university, pics, chat, for, adult, women, new, xxx, girls, music, porn, to, gay, school, home, college, state.

Findings from the study:

  • The mean number of terms of query was 2.4
  • Less than 5% of queries used Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT, +, -, “”, etc.)
  • 48.4% of users submitted a single query, 20.8% two queries, 31% three or more
  • Modified queries usually added additional terms rather than removing them
  • 28.6% of users stayed on the first page of results, 19% looked at two pages

2.4 terms per query seems a bit low. A glance at the AOL query logs (totally not scientific) gives me the impression that people generally use more terms nowadays. Also, I would say the term “free” would be rarely used nowadays, since it’s been beaten to death by every commercial website out there. Basically, search queries have gotten more sophisticated since 1997.

One interesting remark,

That is, close to half of the users looked at two or less pages. Were users so satisfied with the results that they did not need to view more pages?

To me, this is surprising — I rarely go past the first page nowadays on Google. Did we really browse through pages and pages of search results back then? Tedious.

Spink, A., Wolfram, D., Jansen, M., & Saracevic, T. (2001). Searching the Web: The Public and Their Queries. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 52(3), 226-234. [PDF] [HTML]

Entry filed under: Internet, Search.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. cydonian  |  September 22, 2006 at 3:26 am

    I did that once. In 1999, on google. I can’t remember if it was a two-word search, but it was a teenage interest of an intimate nature. I think there were about 134 or so hits for that search, perhaps five or six pages.

    Six hours after I first typed those keywords and clicked “search”, I looked up from my screen and decided that was perhaps the only time ever that I’d look at _every_ search result. We were all kids once…

  • 2. Rebecca  |  June 30, 2007 at 12:11 am

    I think the search results are better now than they used to be. Usually, you would never need to search to six page or whatever. If you have to search past the 1st or second page, you realize a better search term to use.


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