According to an Alexa Research report,
February 16, 2001 8:26 PM   Subscribe

According to an Alexa Research report, Web users are morons (entering URLs into search engines to get to sites) and perverts (most popular search term is "sex"). I, for one, am shocked.
posted by tregoweth (35 comments total)
I thought it was fairly common knowledge that sex is the #1 search word. That other part though is pretty surprisng... I mean, people are dumb enough to type in a URL into the search engine instead of into the URL?
posted by swank6 at 8:42 PM on February 16, 2001

Are users stupid? No.

Spend some time volunteering at a library and you'll see how most people conceive of and use the web. There are 80 million more (in America) yet to come online. You just know those 80 million are even less computer savvy than the people described in the Alexa research.

Web designers don't have a clue just how far off track they are in designing for a mass audience. If you can install a plug-in in your browser, heck, if you know what a plug-in is, you are an advanced Internet user.
posted by fleener at 9:00 PM on February 16, 2001

The words stupid, unsophisticated and uneducated all have different meanings.

The big difference is that the other problems can be solved. Stupid is for life.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:05 PM on February 16, 2001

For a while I did some tech support and -not infrequently- I witnessed users entering domain names into a search box instead of the browser's address bar. I just can't comprehend why, but they actually do it all the time.

To help them out of their sensless ways, I used to tell them to hit Ctrl-O (IE or NN 4.x) or Ctrl-L (NN 3 & 6) before they typed in the url. If they didn't get this right away, I told them that it also prevents the address history from appearing on the Address bar pull down, so they could visit their porno sites and not worry about being found out later by spouse or kids (or parents!). Users do get this.
posted by tremendo at 9:11 PM on February 16, 2001

I was surprised that the word "sex" only accounts for 0.3289% of all searches.

It's a good point to distinguish between stupidity and unsophistication. But putting a URL into a search engine is still laughably unsophisticated.
posted by Loudmax at 9:12 PM on February 16, 2001

Those of us who have been on the web for many years tend to forget how new this technology is to many people around the world and even the a great number of Americans. There have been numerous computers it my house at any given time since I was born (1984), although I didn't get on the 'net till '95. Still, compare that to the experience of someone who only started using a browser six months or a year ago. Remember, the largest bloc of Americans getting onto the web right now is senior citizens. These people still haven't completely adjusted to digital watches and touch-tone telephones. :)
posted by hanseugene at 9:26 PM on February 16, 2001

Windows XP built for mums -- infernal contraption!
posted by holloway at 9:42 PM on February 16, 2001

I'm sorry to say that I've caught my mother entering "" in the Yahoo! search box.
posted by Mark at 9:43 PM on February 16, 2001

Some people feel that they can only type in the browser window (for some reason). So they select a bookmark and go to a place like yahoo and then type in and then click on the link to the site. This method works for them so they keep doing it.

Then there are people who, when given an *email* address, will think it's a web address and will put it into the location bar. An error message is encountered and they start complaining. Or they just get passed to the domain (since x@ is ignored) and they become confused.

I hope this doesn't turn into another "boy, are they dumb!" thread. These people aren't necessarily dumb/stupid, they are just using certain technologies for the first time. The first time my dad used a mouse, he *held it up to the screen*. He is not stupid though.

posted by gluechunk at 9:49 PM on February 16, 2001

well, you can find out information about where else besides on your site your url may appear by typing it into a search engine, but I think that might account for a minority of these cases.
posted by Hackworth at 9:54 PM on February 16, 2001

Might this have something to do with the fact that most browsers are, by default, set up to display the MSN or Netscape homepage (portal, search engine, whatnot) first thing?

I mean, I'm a pretty bright fellow but if the first thing I saw every time I started a browser session was the phrase "Where do you want to go today?" and a search box, I'd probably be popping URLs in there too.
posted by bradlands at 10:06 PM on February 16, 2001

Well, throw me in the "stupid" category, then. I type URLs into search boxes all the time. No, I'm not under the impression that a form on a page is my browser's URL entry box. I just don't notice where my cursor is, especially when I've just alt-tabbed back into a browser window that I'd like to go point somewhere else than the boring search results page I'm looking at.

Minor cognitive difficulties with computer interfaces shouldn't be confused with a deep failure to understand how a browser works.
posted by grimmelm at 10:23 PM on February 16, 2001

My mom does that all the time, and she is not stupid at all. (I'd love to see some of the geeks who say that kind of thing cut deals like she does, or speak multiple languages, etc.) On the other hand, I cannot give her any more tech support. I just can't stand it: "A white rectangle came up on the screen. It just popped up! There is a grey border, and writing ..."

And, ha! Carlos: you are born teacher. Nice tactics. Go visit my mother some time.
posted by sylloge at 10:28 PM on February 16, 2001

I can believe it. If your home page is a search engine and you just open up your browser and start typing a URL it will go in the search box. I do it all the time and I've been on the web for years. I may be stupid but I'm not stupid about the Internet
posted by iscavenger at 12:52 AM on February 17, 2001

Here's a related discussion on how people really use the web.
posted by pedro at 5:44 AM on February 17, 2001

Okay, okay, I was a bit harsh when I said moron.
posted by tregoweth at 9:58 AM on February 17, 2001

In my early days on the web, I used to type into the search box that came up when I opened a browser. To my credit, I don't think it took long, but eventually I figured out that it was quicker to just type it in the address bar.

I am probably like most users in that I rarely bother to read directions, just jump in and start typing and clicking away. It just isn't clear that the address bar is anything other than a bunch of strange symbols and words and numbers. There is no "Type URLs here" message on a browser. And if there was, I'm sure most new users would scratch their heads and say, "What the hell is a URL?"
posted by jennyb at 12:12 PM on February 17, 2001

i am as stupid as can be... back in 96, my first meeting with the net, i typed in the url and then... i was stuck. i had to call my computer store and ask them what to do next.
i think the excitement brought some stupidity with it.

now i have to deal with my mother. she gets confused if she doesnt see the complete url after typing games.yah...
posted by mversion at 4:43 PM on February 17, 2001

The web is getting harder to use over time, not easier. Way back when, it was trivial - I don't remember ever having to "learn" how to use the Web at all. It was just, here's Mosaic, type the URL here, click the blue underlined text to go somewhere else, hit "back" if you go the wrong way. And that was it. The interface was close to transparent. I suspect many of us encountered this version of the web when we started out.

Things are different now. Every site looks different; links aren't even necessarily underlined anymore, and blue text seems to be the exception. Every page has a zillion fonts and colours and images; image maps are everywhere. Frames buggered up the idea of "one page, one URL" and omnipresent CGI systems convinced people that URLs are long strings of unreadable code. Then there are the singing-dancing flash intros all over the place, java applets, DHTML and javascript that screw up the interface in unpredictable ways, pop-up windows, and all the other usual culprits. No wonder modern web users don't try to understand it: it doesn't make sense. The system underneath is so thoroughly buried that it's hard to even know a system exists if you didn't grow up with it. It's a hard enough job just to cope with it.

The feeling I've had since the beginning - that I have mastered the medium, that I can get what I want the way I want it - is starting to slip, and I'm beginning to feel more what the newbies must feel. It's a chaotic, unpredictable, overcomplicated world; "they" don't want you to control what you are doing, "they" want to usher you through their pre-defined experience their way, and screw you if you don't like it. Not that you really ever know who "they" are; it's just clear that You Are Not In Control. You don't quite know where you are, what's available, or where what you want might be. You don't know what errant click is going to spawn off some sub-window with a plugin that doesn't work that pops up a dialog box that asks you to go to another page to download something that you then have to install. So you just fool around, clicking on what you know will work whether it's the right way to do it or not.

Newbies are stupid because they are being confronted with a pathologically unmanageable set of incompatible interfaces.

-Mars, who hasn't thought of the web as "fun" in a long time
posted by Mars Saxman at 4:54 PM on February 17, 2001

That's one of the most impressive arguments I've seen anyone make on MetaFilter, Mars.

I think the biggest thing we've lost in the race to add new bells and whistles to the Web is the similarity of hyperlinks across different Web sites.
posted by rcade at 5:14 PM on February 17, 2001

What never ceases to amaze me is that everyone has an anecdote about how someone smart makes mistakes like these when the first get on the web, but we will all ignore that reality and bitch about things like a "Go" button on the browser.

I'm the same way, though, people who type URLs into search boxes are a big pet peeve.
posted by anildash at 8:41 PM on February 17, 2001

1.What makes the web so wonderful? The fact that it's one big free for all.
2.Interface uniformity is an evil notion that should be fought at every turn.
3.The web reflects life more honestly than any other medium.
4.There's a shitload of people who'd love to have it look and function exactly like network television.
5. Stay creative. DO NOT conform.
6. Thank you.
posted by davebush at 9:03 PM on February 17, 2001

What makes the web so wonderful? The fact that it's one big free for all.

If you replaced the word "wonderful" with "awful," you'd still have a true statement.
posted by kindall at 10:03 PM on February 17, 2001

If you replaced the word "wonderful" with "awful," you'd still have a true statement.

Hell yeah. I don't care if some artsy or personal site wants to screw with my head (not that I'll necessarily go there again), but when I just want to buy something or get some information, I just want to buy something or get some information.
posted by gleemax at 11:51 PM on February 17, 2001

The web is getting harder to use over time, not easier. Way back when, it was trivial - I don't remember ever having to "learn" how to use the Web at all.

First, I remember way back when and I remember a whole lot of people having to be taught exactly what to do in order to get Mosaic to work. Second, things you're uncomfortable with -- the "zillion fonts and colours and images" -- have accompanied absolutely every visual medium known to man since practically our cave-painting days.

The system underneath is so thoroughly buried that it's hard to even know a system exists if you didn't grow up with it. It's a hard enough job just to cope with it.

Well, what is the "system underneath"? To someone who religiously goes online to see what they've put up at, the "system underneath" is the shockwave plug-in that came with their browser.

These things are manifestations of media diversity and while I might not like them all, I know that each one probably has a million adherents. What I do is just pick out the bits I like.

In any case, one of the most heartening things I found in the article was that top search expressions included such normal everyday things as "chat", "music" and "games". While I'm not sure the study is representative of the web or web-users as a whole, this certainly points to the web being used as a vehicle for entertainment -- as you'd expect. Hopefully this will give pause to all those whose constant refrain is that the web is used (or should be used) purely for informational/transaction purposes -- as in checking your portfolio on etrade or comparing the relative merits of various car parts on Compared to such a sterile view of human nature, I'm almost relieved that "porn" is one of the top search terms.
posted by leo at 2:49 AM on February 18, 2001

Good examples, Cray. The one that always gets me is that Win9x notepad doesn't support Ctrl-F. Wtf?! And get me a search and replace function already! (They did with the NT/2K track.) By the way, I use other utilities on my home computer -- but at work I'm forced to use whatever the client has available.

I do think that fun interfaces like Winamp skins are a feature that some end-users like in their entertainment software. It's akin to programming a favorite song as your cell phone ring (which is a user-interface element!). And weblogs and other personal sites are free to play the "mystery meat" game with their buttons. It's enjoyable for both the designer and the reader. It can also serve as a shibboleth to keep the teeming millions away.

An e-commerce site, however, is something different entirely, and that's where Nielsen comes in. As things are there's a lot of abandoned transactions: clearly, making it harder is not the way to go. So davebush, keep in mind that there are different rules for different kinds of websites.

Dave Winer (did I bring him up here?) has been ranting about the web's unsuitability as an interface for some time. Call it lessons learned in the process of building a web-based publishing system. That's why he's working on a desktop app that leverages the power of the web into a stable, controllable user interface. It's a bit ironic, seeing as how many corporate applications have been moving in the opposite direction, the browser being a terrific low-end user-interface that you don't necessarily have to enhance at the desktop level. But writing for the web is nearly impossible inside a browser. I can't tell you how many posts to MeFi I've lost when I hit "preview" only to get a blank page -- at least once every few days. Some of them were quite good, too! My current pet peeve is that I can't type in the browser until the page has completely loaded, or it does that final redraw and relocates the cursor. I'm always whipping over to Google and typing search engine queries that look like "ginefire en". The web frustrates me, and I know how it works.

The key thing here is the "parent lesson". Watch your parents use the web. My dad only does things he already knows how to do ... unless forced. And then he gets VERY frustrated and has to have me walk him through something, and this can be something as simple as a form with pull-down menu items. Of course those come naturally to me -- I've been using them for 15 years! To him they're a non-obvious feature that hides choices. To him, hiding choices is not a Good Thing.
posted by dhartung at 2:55 PM on February 18, 2001

So what happens when someone messes with that? Let's take an example that's on every Windows computer: Notepad. "Search" isn't in the Edit menu, it's in the search menu. That always messes me up.

As dhartung mentioned, Windows 2000 Notepad does this correctly. "Find" is under "Edit" and can be accessed with Ctrl+F. "Find Next" is F3. Why it took MS so long to fix Notepad (it can't be a complicated program) is beyond me. It still doesn't handle Ctrl-Backspace correctly. The textarea control in IE does, but not Notepad? To me, no Ctrl-Backspace support is the worst crime an application can commit.
posted by daveadams at 5:02 PM on February 18, 2001

What does Ctrl-Backspace do?
posted by kindall at 7:03 PM on February 18, 2001

It's not a question of stupidity, it's a question of lazyness!
posted by Zool at 8:32 PM on February 18, 2001

Kindall, type several words and try it. Pretty easy to figure out. As noted, it works right here.

Yeah, the hell of it is they made very little effort for interface compatibility. It's just like the inconsistent switches for NET ____ in various flavors of Windows. Just plain laziness. Yes, I can understand that getting the little flying paper thing working would be noticed by more customers. Yeesh.
posted by dhartung at 9:12 PM on February 18, 2001

Dan, Kindall, like me, uses a Mac so we can't type a few words and try it. You should know this, since you're me. :)
posted by rodii at 7:12 AM on February 19, 2001

ctrl-backspace = "delete previous word".
posted by mmanning at 12:48 AM on February 20, 2001

Second, things you're uncomfortable with -- the "zillion fonts and colours and images" -- have accompanied absolutely every visual medium known to man since practically our cave-painting days.

The web is more than a visual medium. In fact, the web as visual medium is secondary: first of all, the web is an information machine. Every web site of any size is the user interface for a database. No matter how pretty the graphics, behind it all, every action can be expressed as a database query. This is the reality of the web: behind all the pretty pictures, it's a machine for supplying and retrieving information.

A good web site should respect its true nature and do a good job at being the front panel of a complex machine. This means things like consistency, uniformity, predictability. Generations of engineers can tell you all about this - it's not a new science. It doesn't matter if your lime green strikethrough links look prettier - putting the brake pedal on the right might look prettier, too, but you won't see Ford trying that one anytime soon.

I think the reason I keep ranting about "arrogant designers" is that people who come from the offline world expect to be in the driver's seat. They expect to create a creation that people will then go experience, because that's how things work in print, film, and so on. From a software designer's perspective, this is a recipe for disaster - the user is in control, and good software bends to the user's every whim and helps them accomplish whatever it is they want to do.

This is why I stress that the web is a machine: good web design thinks about the site as a complex machine, and thus approaches problems with the idea of making sure the user is in control. The web designer's job, like the software designer's job, is to get out of the way and give the user whatever it is they want with the least fuss possible.

Thinking about the web as a visual medium obscures this and suggests that the designer should be in control: that the designer's vision should be paramount, that the designer should not be constrained by what's been done but should push the limits and create new, amazing things.

I have nothing against new, amazing things: but please, please, please, worry about the pinstripes and tailfins after you have the steering wheel and gearshift working.

posted by Mars Saxman at 1:03 PM on February 20, 2001

Y'know, Mars, the programmer in me is standing beside you, chanting in chorus.

But that little part of me that likes seeing flashy new stuff, and enjoys being absorbed in a good movie, that part of me is saying "Why limit yourself?"

I agree that the most important aspect of the Internet (and not necessarily the Web) at this point is that of information machine, but where's the harm in experimentation?

Someone takes a risk to try to present a tail fin without a gearshift and maybe they learn a whole lot more about tail fins in the process of crashing and burning. It's their risk, let 'em enjoy it.
posted by cCranium at 2:11 PM on February 20, 2001

Delete previous word?! Hell Yeah! I love you Metafilter!
posted by mblandi at 7:51 AM on April 4, 2001

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