The battle of the sexes has raged from time immemorial, and we’re not going to solve that today - but we have to ask ourselves whether a greater understanding of gendered search can help us reach target markets more effectively. If potential customers are searching differently - and we can start to pick up on those patterns - we should be able to use this information to our advantage.
Relative to how important these differences could be, there has been surprisingly little research done on the topic. It involves analysing information that’s hard to capture and quantify, and those that have done the research seem to be working from relatively small sample sizes.
However, their results are startlingly similar. The core of the conclusion seems to be this: women are more likely to use specific, long search terms, while men are more likely to ‘accidentally’ find the result they were looking for. Yet somehow, men are more satisfied with the results they find than women.
Some of the research also suggests that there are key differences in the kind and type of information that men and women are searching for, as well as how they find it.
Men and women use search differently - and if we’re not accounting for that, it’s potentially a major oversight that could mean we’re losing out.
The Pew Research Center - an American nonpartisan fact and think tank that focuses public issues and trends facing the world, has been conducting research in this field for over a decade. While their research is US-centric, their results are potentially applicable to the Western world.
In 2008, they found that while most men and women report having ever used a search engine, men were far more likely than women to even use search on a typical day - while 53% of men were using search on a given day, women lagged behind at 45%.
As we all know, trends related to technology are constantly changing. If we take a look at overall patterns, we can argue that men are more likely to use search - historically - but over time, women have been catching up to the extent that the difference now is almost negligible. From 2002 to 2008, the percentage of men online using search on a daily basis has risen from 33% in 2002, to 53% in 2008, while the percentage of women has also risen significantly from 25% to 45% in 2002 to 2008 respectively.
So what? Men are using search engines more frequently than women - but to what end? And what difference does that make to business?
The data from the Pew Research Center also tells us some more general information - that men have been more engaged in search, and men have stated that they search more frequently - while also expressing greater confidence in their search abilities - though their results and satisfaction with their findings seem to be contrary to this.
Interestingly, in 2005, Pew found that men have been more aware than women of paid vs. unpaid search results, and are more likely to know the differences between the two. 43% of men know the difference, as compared to 32% of women. Furthermore, 51% of men have some inkling of search engines tracking user behaviour, as opposed to just 34% of women being aware of these systems even existing.
“Men and women trust their search engines about equally. Some 67% of men and 70% of women say they are a fair and unbiased source of information.”
“Men stick with a single search engine more than women. Some 47% of men regularly use just one search engine, compared to 40% of women. On the other hand, 51% of women use 2 or 3 engines, compared to 44% of men.”
Knowing about basic differences between the sexes and whether or not they even use search is one thing - but by looking at the differences between their actual methodologies, we can get some real insights into customer behaviour.
A 2010 paper by Maghferat and Stock appearing in Webology - a peer reviewed journal devoted to the World Wide Web - highlights some of the ways in which men and women use different search terms to retrieve information. While they look into deep web searches, their conclusions on how their sample uses search engines is most relevant to us.
They found that “68.4% of women compared to 46.2% of men used query search operators in the formulation” of their searches.
They also found that men are far more likely to ‘accidentally’ come upon their desired search results, whereas women are more often fulfilling their search requirements “structurally and purposefully.”
In other words - women are more likely to use long search strings, while men are more likely to search generally and then drill down. Men are spreading the net wide and using less key terms, while women are using specific key words for more focused searching.
The previously mentioned characteristics ring true with research regarding the differences between men and women’s preferences for information that isn’t centred on online search.
Though not focused on online search in particular, a 2006 paper out of the Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium by Xie, Hui, Jigang Bao and Morais can give some insights into some fundamental differences between the types of information men and women are looking for.
They found that while typically men’s “preference for logical and analytical thinking makes it easier for them to use Boolean logic” to put queries together, women’s “rich verbal abilities… support the use of a wider vocabulary and multiple syntactic relationships.”
Women are far more likely to go on recommendations garnered through word of mouth, are more likely to share information and are more likely to develop a relationship with a source. They’re also more inclined than men to collaboratively search for information - in some ways we can see this in action in the success of Pinterest and social sharing sites.
In their specific example - looking at how men and women retrieved information in a holiday setting - they found that women are more likely to search for information regarding lodging, food and local culture, while men were more likely to search for information on transportation, weather and security.
Women are more likely to share information - and more likely to return to trusted content providers. They’re more likely to recommend your site to others, given their preference for collaborative, social approbation of information. On the other hand, it seems that search engine algorithms are almost inherently skewed towards men’s formulation of queries.
While some of this data is limited - its power is overwhelming. This information could be used to change the way we write headlines for different audiences. With more information on the kinds of data one sex is more likely to search for, we could have really powerful demographic insights on our hands.