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The explanation appears to be fairly simple: more and more people are searching for more specific information. If someone submits a general query, say, “bird flu,” the results at the top of a search-engine’s results page will indeed list high-traffic websites, for example, the Centers for Disease Control site. And that site’s popularity will be reinforced. But Web searches are becoming increasingly more complex, according to Menczer. A search for “bird flu Turkey 2005” will bring up far fewer results, and lead to more obscure pages. “If you consider that people submit diverse queries that return a small number of hits,” he says, “that means traffic is distributed to less-popular sites.”

The results are somewhat controversial because many people have been operating under the assumption that a Googlearchy does exist, says Albert-László Barabási, professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame and also an expert on Internet behavior and how websites are connected to each other. He agrees with Menczer that general searches do make some types of sites more popular. “I think the message here is that as soon as you become a slightly more sophisticated searcher, then you’re breaking the spell of the Web,” he says.

The theory that people are becoming more adept in searching the Web is borne out by some hard data, too. According to Hitwise, a firm that tries to improve companies’ search rankings, people are increasingly using more words per search query. Based on this trend, Menczer’s research seems reasonable, says Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise.

But Tancer also questions the quality of data used to test the researchers’ models. For example, the traffic data for the research was gleaned from a free, downloadable search tool, Alexa, which provides Web statistics. But, according to Tancer, this data could be biased because Alexa users tend to be online marketers rather than average Web users.

In addition, the study used data from 2003, and “a lot has changed since then,” says Tancer. Hitwise data, which is collected directly from Internet service providers such as AT&T, suggests that people interact with the Web in a number of ways, not just by either using searching engines or surfing. Tancer says people also end up on sites from directly typing in a URL, through sponsored links, where companies pay money to appear prominently on a search page, and through social networking sites.

Indiana’s Menczer says that the paper, released last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a first attempt to show how Web data may or may not corroborate the idea of a Googlearchy. Currently, his group is exploring the effects of other modes of Web use, including social search, to see if sites such as digg.com and del.icio.us amplify or diminish his team’s results.

Meanwhile, the Indiana researchers’ work provides an important analysis of a commonly held assumption about search engines, says Matt Hindman, professor of political science at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Using “empirical data to model these relationships rather than just assume” is what had been missing, he says.

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