27 May 2014

Cognitive Behavior and How We Search the Web

When assigning specific words to content, information architecture and navigation labels, most words are chosen from keyword data, ignoring the cognitive behavior behind those words.

Did you know that your website visitors have different searching styles?  Do you know how these behaviors affect how they search for information and make choices?  There is more to keyword research data than the number of queries used to find site or the weight value of the top keywords.  Words paint a different mental image for some people or don’t mean anything at all.

There are too few studies on how cognitive behavior effects how we search the Web.  One study, Modeling Users’ Web Search Behavior and Their Cognitive Styles, found that how we search can make a difference when it comes to categorizing, organizing and presenting information for researchers and the design of information systems.

Earth attached to laptopUsing the Ridings CSA Test (1991) as a baseline for their cognitive behavior model, they gathered up 50 participants from Queensland University of Technology who were 52% male and 48% female, of mixed students and staff members ages 20 to 56.  They were first asked to take the Ridings CSA test to help understand their personal cognitive behavior model.  Then they performed three separate tasks, factual exploratory and abstract.  It was assumed the factual task was the least complicated and the abstract would be the most complex.

Cognitive Behavior

The Ridings CSA test groups humans into two principle cognitive dimensions that affect how we learn and organize information.

Wholist-Analytic (WA)

The Wholists are those who see a situation as a whole picture with the ability to balance and analyze information to form how they structure learning and problem solving.

Analytics approach a situation as a collection of parts and focus on or two aspects of those parts at a time.  They are good at finding similarities, detecting differences and providing their own structure.

Intermediates are a blend of both Wholists and Analytics who mix both characteristics.

Verbal-Imagery (VI)

Verbalizers think in terms of words and consider the information they read, see, or hear in words or verbal associations.  They tend to have a good verbal memory, are fluent with language and verbally articulate.

Imagers think in terms of mental pictures.  These people are good at writing and working with visual, spatial, and pictorial information.  When they read or listen, they retain mental pictures of the information itself or associations with it.

Bimodals have characteristics of both verbalizers and imagers.

Before I get into the conclusions of this one study, I thought it would interesting to tie this research to not only how people search for information but how we determine the types of content we put on web pages.  For example, the use of adding visual content like product images, Infographics, and videos takes on a new perspective when you stop to consider the different cognitive behaviors of the people visiting your site.  The tendency for minimalism and removing text, in lieu of sliders, large hero images and even parallax design may be design trends that do not necessarily work for your target users who need words to conjure up mental pictures instead.

How We Search

It turns out that Wholists, which are the people who view ideas as a complete whole and are better at structuring and analyzing information, love to read.  And, surprise, so do Imagers.  They also like to read and in search results pages, will read each description in detail and spend more time there before making a decision.  (Which may mean removing snippets is going to hurt some websites?)  This means that attention to details in your title tag and Meta description continue to matter.

Verbalizers preferred scanning search results pages to see if they contained relevant information or not. For these people, you want to use precise words and remove all fluff, marketing terminology and vague language that are not specific in helping with making choices.

All of the test participants followed structured navigation approaches, but verbalizers were found to be more sporadic and impatient, even confused as they scanned information.

The study found three types of information-searching strategies: top down, bottom-up and mixed. Wholists, who are those who can take information as a whole, and Verbalists who scan, preferred a top-down search strategy.  This means they started out with a general search and then gradually narrowed it down with specific information.

Alternatively, the bottom-up approach was favored by analytics and imagers.  These people entered a relatively higher number of search terms into their search queries, adding more with each query.

If you look at how Amazon has items cross referenced into more than category, you can see how they make the addition of more search terms useful to those who are more specific when they are looking for something.  This is something many websites are not doing within their own information architecture.

Another activity observed in the study along with their 3 tasks were how they would Add, Remove, Replace and Repeat during search queries.  They wrote,

“A significant difference was found among wholists and analytics in the matter they executed Remove query reformulations.  Verbalizers executed a higher number of Add, Remove and Replace query reformulations than their imagery peers. They tended to use language better than imagers used it.”

In contrast, they wrote that imagery participants lacked linguistic expression to modify their queries and use of search terms.  They submitted a higher number of New and Repeat queries to complete the search tasks.

So, what might this mean to keyword data?  Frequency of the use a search term may not necessarily be interpreted to mean it is the best word to choose for your particular website.  The word might be used often because it is more commonly known and used but still not meet the need of the information seeker because they know of no better word choices to try.

As with any study, this one was small and relied on the Ridings CSA test, which is not considered by some researchers to be the best choice for choosing cognitive behavior user models.  Another drawback was the three tasks themselves, so that by the time participants got the last one, they were tired and therefore less focused.  In addition, we are more likely to search differently when looking for something that is of interest to us, rather than assigned research tasks.

The relationship between human behavior and information seeking remains one of the least understood aspects of web design and search engine marketing.  For many of you, getting a site design discussion that includes how everyone else besides the boss uses it is a big hurdle.

Remember to watch people use your website and add your findings to your marketing and design strategies.  Tweak your content so that it fits different cognitive behavior user models.  In fact, add these to your searcher and user personas.  Your competitors are not doing these things.

Be better than they are.

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net