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Questionable statistics from Yahoo study


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October 12, 2005

Questionable statistics from Yahoo study

Stephen Baker

Yahoo is right that Internet search is a highly valuable service. But a new study the company just released contains what I consider questionable statistics that exaggerate the importance of search.

the stats:

-86% of new parents-to-be said they use the Internet to search about information on pregnancy, as compared to books (68%), friends/family (53%), and magazines (37%);

-54% of new parents said search simplified their lives more so than magazines (17%) or TV (10%);

-81% of college students rate search as their best source of information, followed by friends and family (64%), newspaper (36%) and TV (24%).

No doubt lots of women look to the Internet for information on pregnancy. That's one kind of data. But is it worth more than what they learn from their sisters, mothers, and best friends, as these numbers would indicate? I would guess not. A generation ago, this type of analysis would have concluded that Yellow Pages, as a source of information, trumped friends and family.

UPDATE: While responding to a comment, it occurred to me that Yahoo itself understands that personal relationships are a source of highly valuable information. That's why they're linking relationships to search in the My Web project.

SECOND UPDATE: Commenters point out that I morphed the survey's "parents" into "mothers." Guilty as charged. But that raises the question of whether there's a difference between how the genders get their news. I would maintain that both men and women get lots of data from search engines, but give far more value to what they learn from friends and family.

04:01 PM

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Except that by searching they are also getting accounts from everyone's mother and sisters and best friends. Often web resources can support what we already know anyway. Or maybe, what we don't want to know. There was a pretty funny article about this:

http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/viewArticle.asp?articleID=2434

1. Notice your newborn sneezing three times in a row.

2. Call pediatrician's office right away. Doctor says all newborns sneeze, nothing to be concerned about.

3. Fret.

4. Boot up your computer and pull up your favorite search engine. Type "newborn sneeze." Get 49,000 hits.

5. Disbelieve pseudo-medical sites that claim it is normal for newborns to sneeze a lot.

6. Go to 15 different message boards and send messages asking about frequency of sneezes, age of infants and productive versus non-productive quality of sneezes.

7. Enter a chat session with other anxious parents about the philosophy, psychology, physiology and sociology of infants and sneezing.

8. Agonize some more.

9. Decide not enough reliable information is available online about the problem. Resolve to set up your own Web site.

10. Discover you sniffed two times during the chat. Disregard wet cheeks.

11. Blame yourself for passing cold on, for taking her out in the stroller on a warm sunny day, for not washing hands frequently, and for not wearing a gas mask.

12. Return to search engine, and type "cold contagion mom baby prevention."

13. Hear a gurgle. Turn around and find baby smiling.

14. Aw! First smile. Whoop for joy. Rush to get the digital camera.

15. Sniffles and sneezes – a distant memory.

Posted by: dg at October 12, 2005 05:32 PM

But it said parents, not mothers. Perhaps the trend towards greater interest in parenting from men (see reports on a study in British papers this week) has something to do with high usage of search?

Posted by: Mary-Ann at October 12, 2005 05:59 PM

I wondered about this as well and emailed them earlier today to set up a time to talk about the survey. They said they could chat later in the week. So, will get back to you.

Posted by: Heather Green at October 12, 2005 06:05 PM

Mary-Ann, I would be ashamed of my gender if our enhanced interest in parenting came from what they learned on a search engine. I guess it's not beyond question, though.

My central point is that just because you use something more, it doesn't mean it's more important. And I think some of the comparisons in that Yahoo study were off-base. That said, Yahoo itself sees that personal relationships are a source of highly valuable information. That's why they're linking relationships to search in the My Web project. (I think I'll add this to the post)

Posted by: steve baker at October 12, 2005 06:06 PM

Good grief, Steve, it did say parents. Not mothers. As a single dad, it's always nerve-wracking to see this. Morphed into unimportance with a stroke of a few keys. And yes, I could see search being used more than family and friends. More in depth info. But just because search may be used more, doesn't mean it is more valuable.

Posted by: Jonathan Trenn at October 12, 2005 10:45 PM

I'm of the opinion that many people lack nearby and knowledgeable "sisters, mothers, and best friends" from whom to gain parenting information, and that's why online parenting communities have proliferated.

The Internet was a massive help to me when my own kids were small, and I found a great deal of personal support online. Because being a stay at home mother of an infant or toddler [yes, I said "mother"] tends to be an isolating occupation.

And those darling little people can be so needy, somedays it's impossible to set foot outside the house. That's why being able to turn on the computer and search for companionship or information is so wonderful for parents.

Posted by: Z*lda at October 13, 2005 11:40 AM

My point is that there are different levels of information, and it's hard to compare them. I have a 17-year-old thinking about colleges. He can surf the Net forever looking at stats, reports, comparisons. But if he here's from a good friend that such-and-such college "sucks," it trumps just about everything he's learned online. Now, as I mention above, Yahoo is trying to bring those personal relationships into search. If it works, it could be very powerful.

Posted by: steve baker at October 13, 2005 01:20 PM

Hi Steve-

So much depends on the set of circumstances. A person might be a loner and have no one he or she trusts. On the other hand, one's most common circle might consist of people devoid of knowledge relating to something that needs to be learned. For these people, the web is a life saver.

I agree with you, though, that the opinion of someone you know and trust will pretty much always supercede something looked up. There's a bunch of reasons for this.

So, where does Yahoo! get their statistics? I don't doubt them at face value. For instance, pregnancy is a fairly complicated state of affairs and there's a lot of technical stuff to know. Most people would be able to find things out that people in their circle wouldn't know.

I wonder about the sample, though. Did they collect their data on-line or via email? these people would be more disposed to on-line search, I bet. I wonder if they pursued more traditional polling methods such as telephoning or USPost solicitation? Indeed, the numbers aren't lying, but the devil is in the details.

Pete Z.

Posted by: Pete Zievers at October 14, 2005 02:25 PM


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