Search queries and the Skinner box

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How someone searches is a result of every single query you have ever done. It is a learnt behaviour shaped by an ongoing conversation between the user and the algorithm.

The results page for each query is feedback on how well the question was articulated. If the results are relevant enough to end your search, that is good. If it was not, then you try a new approach and adopt a new method. For most web literate people, this process is repeated dozens of times everyday.

What appears on the results page is determined by three factors: the query itself, how the search engine interprets the query, and what sites appear to be the most relevant to this query. The user only has control over the query that they put in. However, over time, this will be influenced by the interaction between the search engine, the sites it indexes, and what the user deems relevant enough.

In low competition namespaces where optimisation activity is low to nonexistent, it is only feedback from the search engine that shapes user behaviour. Assuming an effective algorithm, the user may not have to try as many different query structures, refinements or synonyms to find a site that would be relevant enough.

In a more competitive namespace where the optimisation activity keeps pace with or exceeds the search engine’s ability to control what is deemed relevant for a specific query, the user’s behaviour is affected by both the search engine and SEOs who consider that namespace to deliver a good return. Assuming that the optimised sites do deliver an experience that is relevant, then this will have minimal impact on user behaviour. In namespaces where there is more than one potential subject, then optimisation activity for one may force a shift in the search behaviour of the users seeking the other.

A crowded namespace can have another interesting effect on search behaviour: an increased use of a site’s branded terms to locate it by existing customers. Where there is a high level of competition on generic product terms, or the most relevant site for the namespace is outranked by less relevant results, the user can be taught to use branded instead of generic terms.

Search engines are Skinner Boxes. Each time the user conducts a query, they get feedback on how closely it relates to their intent. In response to this feedback, their behaviour changes. The feedback they receive comes from two sources: the search engine itself, and those optimising for it. These in turn influence how the user describes the product online, and can encourage them to hone in on a more focused range of queries.

One response to “Search queries and the Skinner box”

  1. […] even search is similar to a Skinner Box, rewards and simple game mechanics appearing in other forms of social media is unsurprising. […]

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