Search Challenges E-mail as Top Online Activity

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Almost half of all Internet users now use search engines on a typical day, according to a new study released last week, that showed search engines are drawing ever closer to the all-time dominant Internet application -- e-mail.

The percentage of Internet users who turn to search engines has been steadily increasingly from one-third in 2002 to 49% now, according to the report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Sixty percent of Internet users use e-mail on a typical day, according to Pew's statistics.

While the percentage of Internet users who search on a typical day grew 69% from January 2002 to May 2008, the use of e-mail on a typical day for the same six-year period increased from 52% to 60%, a growth rate of 15%, Pew noted.

These new figures show search is far ahead of other popular daily Internet activities like checking the news (which 39 % of users do on a typical day) or checking the weather (which 30% of users do on a typical day).

People who are using search engines are more likely to have at least some college education and incomes greater than US$50,000 per year, according to the study. They are most likely to have at least six years of experience going online and to have their homes wired for fast Internet connections, Pew said. Younger users and men are more likely to search than older users or women on a typical day.

The data collected since 2002 show that men who use the Internet have been more likely than women to integrate search into their daily lives, the report noted. The percentage of men who search on a typical day has grown from 33% in 2002 to 53% now. The percentage of women has grown from 25% in 2002 to 45%.

This is the second time since Pew began tracking search engine use in 2002 that the group has seen such a large bump. The first came in late 2005, when the percentage of users searching on a typical day grew from 30% in June 2004 to 40% in September 2005. Pew has speculated that the increase then may have been driven in part by the intense media coverage and buzz surrounding Google's initial stock offering.

One likely reason for the current increase is that users can now expect to find a "high-performing, site-specific search engine on just about every content-rich Web site that is worth its salt," the report noted. "With a growing mass of Web content from blogs, news sites, image and video archives, personal Web sites and more, Internet users have an option to turn not only to the major search engines, but also to search engines on individual sites as vehicles to reach the information they are looking for."

The growth might also be linked to the growth of homes with high-speed Internet connections. Of all the demographic variables Pew analyzed, the presence of a home broadband connection had the strongest relationship with a user's propensity to use a search engine on a typical day, the report said.

Greg Sterling, a blogger at Search Engine Land, added that the growth might also be bolstered by the sheer volume of data now available online.

"I would speculate that there's so much information out there that no other organizational tool can manage the volumes of content that people online 'consume,'" Sterling noted. "Search has become an essential utility for almost all Internet users."

TechCrunch's Jason Kincaid added that it is important to note that the Pew data only reflects usage on a "typical day."

"Ninety percent of Web users use a search engine at some point over the course of a month - a figure that has held relatively constant over the years," he noted. "But as search engine accuracy has improved, more people are turning to them for their day-to-day information instead of traditional tools like bookmarks and home pages."

This story, "Search Challenges E-mail as Top Online Activity" was originally published by Computerworld.

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