Bulletin, December/January 2006
Clicking Instead of Walking: Consumers Searching for Information in the Electronic Marketplace
by Kuan-Pin Chiang
Kuan-Pin Chiang is an assistant professor of marketing, School of
Business, Long Island University, 1 University Plaza, Brooklyn, NY 11201. He can
be reached by phone at 718-488-1147 or email at kuan.chiang at liu.edu.
In theory the Web provides vast possibilities for information
search and comparisons unconstrained by time and place, which have traditionally
restricted consumer search behavior in the physical marketplace. Because of this
reduction of search costs, studies have taken the economic perspective in
analyzing the efficiency of the electronic market (for example, Brynjolfsson
& Smith, 2000) and implications for consumers searching for information
online (for example, Hoque & Lohse, 1999; Wu, Ray, Geng & Whinston,
2004). Although none have yet focused strictly on paid search, the implications
are probably transferable.
This article looks at surveys that compare search
cost between online and physical environments. Additionally, using search pages
resembling Yahoo! paid search result pages in online experiments, we studied the
effects of personal and system factors on the number of websites visited and
time spent per site.
Several reasons suggest that conventional
economic theories do not adequately explain consumer online search behavior.
First, the fundamental premise of economic theory is that the amount of
information search will increase when search costs are reduced. Empirical
evidence, however, has not shown such behavior with online shopping. For
example, by examining the shopping patterns of online users over time, Johnson
et al. (2004) found that the amount of online search is
actually quite limited. On average, households visit only 1.2 book sites, 1.3 CD
sites and 1.8 travel sites during a month in each product category.
Another study by Jansen et al. (2000) revealed a similar pattern from the
analysis of logs containing 51,473 queries posed by 18,113 Excite users. The
results show that Web queries are short. Most users had only a few queries per
search, and 76% of users did not go beyond their first and only query.
it is cognitive, not physical effort that affects consumers searching for
information online. Although physical efforts such as going to stores have been
reduced to finger clicks, it is possible that cognitive challenges of
interacting with computers and online information exist that potentially limit
consumer information search in the electronic marketplace.
In addition, the Internet has transformed
consumer behavior in two ways: (1) by transforming consumers into online
shoppers requiring the use of computers and (2) by transforming physical stores
into an online market space that is information technology intensive. In order
to understand consumer online search behavior, it is necessary to include the
interaction between the combined roles of consumer/computer user and the
information technology provided by the online stores. These factors impose
certain search costs on consumers and influence their online search behavior.
Information search is a stage of the decision
making process in which consumers actively collect and utilize information from
internal and/or external sources to make better purchase decisions. Internal
search occurs when consumers access information previously stored in memory. It
is the primary source used for habitual and limited decision-making. On the
other hand, external search, which is the focus of this article, involves
searching for information from sources outside of memory because the required
information was not previously acquired or cannot be recalled from memory. To
facilitate their decision-making, consumers often utilize sources such as
friends, advertisements and magazines like Consumer
Reports. Lately, the Internet has joined other traditional media and become
a major source of information for many products and services for consumers
because of its abundance of information and convenience.
To explain information search, the economics of
information identifies two types of search costs that influence information
search – external and cognitive. The costs of resources consumers invest in
search, such as monetary costs to acquire information or opportunity costs of
time during acquisitions, are external search costs. Such costs are influenced
by factors beyond consumers’ direct control. They are exogenous and depend on
situational influences. On the other hand, cognitive search costs are internal
to the consumer and reflect the cognitive effort consumers must engage in to
direct search inquiries, sort incoming information and integrate it with stored
information to form decision evaluations. These costs are influenced by
consumers’ ability to cognitively process incoming information.
In the electronic marketplace, external search
costs have been significantly reduced to finger clicks. However, information in
such an environment is highly visual and perceptual. It increases cognitive
search costs that affect consumers’ search for information. In addition,
information search online is characterized by human-computer interaction
requiring consumers' ability and knowledge to acquire information (Hodkison et
al., 2000). In order to search online, consumers must not only be able to locate
the websites of interest and move between sites but also to acquire information
within the sites. There are several ways to identify the location of websites:
(1) via search engine, (2) via manual entry of a URL and (3) via the memory aid
of a browser such as bookmarks. Given the vast amount of information available
on the Internet, these search techniques will affect consumer information
search. As a result, the Internet imposes a certain degree of cognitive search
cost on consumers that could potentially prevent consumers from searching for
Effects of Personal and System
From the consumer perspective, the Internet has
changed the relationship between buyers and sellers because of the unprecedented
increase in the number of choices and levels of control over the message. It has
also changed the decision-making environment by the amount, type and format of
information available to consumers because it provides tools for information
storage, for information search and for decision analysis. Tools such as
bookmarks, search engines and decision aids such as shopbots are likely to
influence consumer’s information search behavior. Personal factors such as
domain (ability to identify information in the product category) and system
expertise (skill in using computers and the World Wide Web for information
search) as well as system factors such as information load and interruptions
impose certain search costs on consumers and influence online information
Analysis and Results
In order to explore specific actions of online
shoppers, we constructed a custom Web browser designed to emulate the look and
feel of Microsoft Internet Explorer. This custom Web browser included five basic
control buttons - Back, Forward, Stop, Refresh and Home - necessary for
navigation on the Internet. The URL address bar was removed from the custom Web
browser in order to maintain some degree of control over the experiments.
Embedded in the custom browser was a computer program that provided the
functions necessary for experimental control and data collection. Each
participant was given a task scenario regarding shopping for a digital camera
starting from the Yahoo! homepage. Participants were instructed to enter a
keyword related to the task and a search result page was displayed with
Results from surveys show two different
perceptions of search costs between the physical and online environments. In an
online environment, perceived external search cost is lower and perceived
cognitive search cost is higher. Results from online experiments show
participants with a lower level of domain expertise perceive greater cognitive
search cost online. They visited fewer websites and spent more time at each site
than those with a higher level of domain expertise. Moreover, participants with
a higher level of system expertise visited more websites than those with a lower
level. Overall, these findings suggest that although physical efforts have been
reduced to finger clicks, the cognitive challenge of interacting with computers
and online information limits consumer information search in electronic
The online market offers consumers vast
opportunities because it reduces physical efforts of information search and
provides access to a large amount of information and choices. What may have been
substituted, however, is the cognitive effort required by the consumers to
interact with computers. This effort may prevent consumers from taking advantage
of the opportunities to search for more information.
There are several unique characteristics of the
Internet that make it a fruitful environment in which to study search behavior.
Its rapid growth makes it a vibrant marketplace that competes with all other
conventional channels. As the Internet evolves, consumers’ online search
behavior will also change. The implications for consumers in terms of
availability of information, access to greater numbers and sources of product
information, and privacy and security issues, to name a few, will require
continued attention and investigation.
Additional opportunities to examine information
search also include personal and computer system variables, effects of website
position on a Web page and "location" of the site in the cyberspace, and the
use of a custom browsers to better understand the dynamic and complex process of
information search in electronic marketplace.
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Articles in this Issue
Clicking Instead of Walking: Consumers Searching for Information in the Electronic Marketplace