Monday, April 1, 2013

Asking v. Searching

Most of the time when we want to know something, we don't turn to a search engine – we ask somebody a question. While we used to have to know the right person to ask, we can now use Facebook or Twitter to broadcast our questions to our entire social network. The kinds of questions that we ask our social networks are very similar to what we search for using search engines, except that we tend to keep our questions "cocktail party-appropriate." Not surprisingly, we are more likely to search about health, religion, sex, and politics than to ask questions on those topics. For example, although adult queries make up a sizable portion of search engine queries, my colleagues and I have yet to see a single question asking about porn in the course of our research.

Nonetheless, given the general similarity between what we ask and search for, it is interesting to think about why someone might choose to ask their friends a question rather than search on their own. We have studied this in a number of ways, but one that was particularly fun was when we asked people to race their friends. You can try this yourself by following three easy steps:
  1. Think of something that you would really like to know more about. For example, you may be planning a trip, making a big purchase, and picking up a new hobby. Go to Facebook and ask your friends about it. For example, participants have asked:
    • "any tips for tiling a kitchen backsplash?"
    • "Anyone know how to stop an in-car nav system from constantly rebooting????"
    • "Lauren's going away for a month, anyone know any good vegetarian recipes?"
  2. Log out of Facebook and go to your favorite search engine. Search on the topic until you feel satisfied that you have learned what you wanted to know.
  3. Return to Facebook, and see what your friends have found for you in the meantime.

Because the topic you select in Step 1 is intended to be one that you care a lot about, you will probably spend a fair amount of time on Step 2. We told our participants that they could stop searching whenever they wanted to, and it generally took them about half an hour to do so. Interestingly, over half of them received a response from their social network faster than that! As much as we may think of broadcasting a question as slow compared to searching, it appears it can actually be quite efficient.

Sometimes participants' friends provided them with the same answers they found by searching. But often friends also provided answers that the searcher had not seen before. This happened for several reasons. For one, friends sometimes provided responses that contained content that just was not available on the web. For example, one person asked for suggestions for vegetarian recipes, to which a friend replied with a typed version of his grandmother’s handwritten recipe. That recipe did not exist in digital format until the question was asked. Likewise, people received offers and invitations that were specific to the individual asking the question and not generically available online. For example, someone who asked about rock climbing in New Zealand received an invitation to couch surf at a friend's house.

Participants also sometimes received replies containing relevant information that they had not thought to look for. Search engines currently only show you want you ask them to. Your friends, however, will tell you what they think you should hear. For example, one participant asked about development opportunities following the completion of a certification course. While her search focused on opportunities within her current career path, she really valued a friend’s out-of-the-box suggestion that she quit and start a consulting company.

Finally, the replies participants received also contained social content. When you broadcast a question to your network you are not only looking for information, but also connecting with other people. For example, one participant asked a question about an upcoming trip to Cancun, and enjoyed receiving responses wishing her a nice trip even though they did not directly address her information need.

There are clearly complementary benefits to searching and asking. In a later post I will discuss our efforts to take advantage of this by helping your friends and algorithms work together to find you the best possible answers.

Related papers:
M.R. Morris, J. Teevan & K. Panovich. A Comparison of InformationSeeking Using Search Engines and Social Networks. ICWSM 2010.
J. Yang, M.R. Morris, J. Teevan, L. Adamic & M. Ackerman. CultureMatters: A Survey Study of Social Q&A Behavior. ICWSM 2011.


  1. By the way, readers of this post may also enjoy reading about a survey Danny Sullivan ran on the topic a couple of years ago: