Web search is the portal to the internet and a huge phenomenon, with some 3.5 billion searches taking place every day on Google alone.
In spite of this, there’s surprisingly little information out there about how different groups of people search the web in different ways – for example, different age groups.
When I started to work on this piece, I was fully expecting there to be some well-organised datasets out there that I could call upon for my analysis. It seemed like such a basic question that I was confident someone would have asked it – and answered it – plenty of times before.
Yet as I quickly discovered, there is almost no readily available information about how different age groups use search. While it’s possible for individual brands to pull together demographic search data by cross-referencing Google Analytics data with Google AdWords, and Google Trends provides lots of interesting insights into global and national search trends, there is very little general data on how searching differs by demographic.
In a way, this is reassuring, as it means that search engines might not be watching us quite as closely when we search the web as we’d feared. But it took some intrepid digging for me to find data for this article.
Here’s what I unearthed about the different ways that people of various ages search for information online.
Two research papers have been published which examined how search queries differ between age groups: one entitled ‘The Demographics of Web Search’ in 2010, and one entitled ‘Who Uses Web Search for What? And How?’ in 2011.
As such, the data is a few years old – but the findings still hold up based on what we know about different age groups.
For example, ‘The Demographics of Web Search’ found that older people (defined in the study as people born before 1956, i.e. age 55+) were more likely to use URLs as search queries.
Some examples of search terms used by older searchers included “yahoo free bridge games”, “www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com” and “www.envisionreports.com/vz”.
The youngest group of searchers (born after 1982, so aged 27 and under) were more likely to search for queries like “free teen chatrooms”, “tottaly layouts” and “photofiltre brushes”. (Ah, 2010. It was a simpler time).
In an extremely unsurprising development, young people were also more likely to try and get things for free. The study noted that if a user started typing “frontpage” in search, the keyword that most commonly followed it was “2003” (referring to the software Microsoft Frontpage 2003). But for young people, the most common follow-up keyword was “free”.
The 2011 study, ‘Who Uses Web Search for What? And How?’ found that topic-wise, young people (born between 1987 and 2006) were more likely to carry out music and gaming-related searches, while older users (born between 1900 and 1948) were more likely to carry out searches related to finance and travel.
So far, so much to be expected. Interestingly however, the study found that young people were more likely to click on a suggested search result if it was presented to them than were older searchers – perhaps indicating a higher level of trust in the technology.
When it comes to search behaviour, young people were also found to carry out more diverse search queries – searches for information, or transactions – and older people were more likely to carry out focused search queries, such as navigating to a website.
Accessibility for Digital Experiences 101
We all know that Google is the world’s most popular search engine, but depending on how old you are, there’s a higher chance that you might be using another search engine instead.
According to a 2015 study by digital marketing consultancy Further, users aged anywhere between 18 and 44 were most likely to be using Google to search the web. Users aged between 45 and 64 were most likely to be found using Bing (with usage being most common among the 55-64 age group), while for users aged 65+, Yahoo! was the most popular search engine.
So if you’ve ever asked yourself the question, “Who even uses Yahoo! any more?”, the answer appears to be 65+ year olds.
Users aged between 25 and 34 were least likely to be caught using Bing, while users aged 65+ were the age group least fond of Google.
Research by comScore in 2015 supported the finding that an older demographic favours Bing: it found that Bing searchers were likely to be at least 35 years old, most commonly falling within the 55-64 age bracket, and were consequently more likely to have children (who presumably used Google).
Finally, there are some interesting stats to be found regarding the adoption of voice search among different age groups.
A Google survey of 1,400 U.S. smartphone users carried out in 2014 found that voice search usage was highest amongst teenagers (aged 13-18), with 55% of teens saying that they used voice search more than once per day. Adults had adopted it at a lower rate, but more than two-fifths (41%) of adults still reported using voice search multiple times per day.
Teenagers were more likely to use voice search while with friends, with 57% being willing to use voice search in company, compared with only 24% of adults.
Teens were also more comfortable using voice search while watching TV than adults (59% versus 36%), while adults were more likely to use voice search while cooking (23% of adults versus 8% of teens – though maybe that’s just because they don’t know how to cook full stop).
When it comes to what they wish they could accomplish with voice search, teens were most likely to wish that voice search could send them pizza – with 45% of teenagers wanting voice-activated pizza delivery, compared with 36% of adults.
But both age groups were tied in wishing that voice search could help them find the remote control: 34% of teenagers and 33% of adults wished that Siri had the power to help them find the remote.
What little data there is to be found about how different age groups use search, paints an interesting picture as to the differences in technology use between generations.
Many of the findings line up with what we might expect: young people are more tech-savvy, more confident with new technology like voice search and more likely to trust the search engine to guide them towards the right result. Older users tend to be a bit more cautious, submitting more specific queries or using search engines to take them to a specific URL.
With some more research into this area, we could build up a more nuanced picture of search engine use amongst age groups, and learn more about how age affects the way that people interact with search and the wider web.