February 8th, 2008

Are your web searches “satisficing?”

This month’s Communications of the ACM has an article about web searchers’ habits: “Are People Biased in Their Use of Search Engines?” It looked at whether searchers merely click on the top results on the list without really looking at the rest of the list (the answer: for some people, it’s true) . It also cites an earlier (2001) article, “Searching the Web: The Public and their Queries,” that looked at the actual search techniques people used. Most people search using only 2 words in the search box.

Librarians do not search the web this way; I heard at a conference last summer that librarians average 7 words per search. So why does everyone else? The answer may be because the first result from a 2 word search will “satisfice.”

So, what is satisfice?

In 1947 decision theorist Herbert Simon proposed that managers “satisfice” rather than maximize when making decisions. As Reva Brown describes it in her article in the Journal of Management History Symposium (in ebrary):

People will satisfice when they make a decision that satisfies and suffices for the purpose. This satisfactory sufficiency enables decision making which is good enough, rather than the absolute best – that which satisfices, while not ideal, will suffice to satisfy requirements.

Satisficing may be fine for most web searches, but what about searching for material that you want to use as part of your education? With a few new skills and a minute or two of advanced searching, you can go from just good enough to actually good.

Most search engines have advanced search features; look for a link next to the search box.

  • Search only certain web domains, such as .edu or .gov
  • Use a topic specific search engine, such as Google U. S. Government, Yahoo Finance, or Google Scholar
  • Use more and more precise keywords.
  • Put phrases or titles inside quotes (“War and Peace” or “campaign finance reform”)
  • Scan the result list before choosing and item to open
  • Try a search in multiple search engines: they aren’t all the same!
  • Use boolean operators. Many search engines will allow and, or and not
  • Check out the Finding Web Sites guide in the Capella Library


Advanced search techniques are probably not important if you’re just trying to find the scores for the Superbowl, but it can make a huge difference if you’re looking for a professor’s website, a quick explanation of a theory, or the publisher of a measurement instrument.Just because Wikipedia is frequently the first result of a Google search doesn’t mean it has to be your first stop, too.

— Erin


Comment from KateP
Time February 8, 2008 at 1:58 pm

I love this idea of satisficing–as it describes in one word the concept and the feeling. Which areas of your life you are more likely to practice this?

-serious health information (doubtful)
-buying a big ticket item like a car (doubtful)
-answer to a trivia question (yep)
-settling a bet with friend (yep)

I know with my academic studies there is a correlation between procrastination and satisficing. The closer the deadline–the more likely I am to use the results at the top of the results list. If I start my research even with a day or two of lead time I tend to focus more on finding the best source I can.

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