Considering the people and things most often googled these days, it maybe surprising to learn that search engines play a much bigger role in our lives than just helping us find pictures of Megan Fox and mildly entertaining videos of would-be wrestlers in their backyards. Specifically, search engines are becoming a major part of how we learn, according to research published in the November issue of Information Processing and Management.

 Information scientists from Penn State sought to discover the cognitive processes underlying searching. They examined the search habits of 72 participants while conducting a total of 426 searching tasks. They found that search engines are primarily used for fact checking users' own internal knowledge, meaning that they are part of the learning process rather than simply a source for information. They also found that people's learning styles can affect how they use search engines.

"Our results suggest the view of Web searchers having simple information needs may be incorrect," said Jim Jansen, associate professor of information sciences and technology. "Instead, we discovered that users applied simple searching expressions to support their higher-level information needs."

Jansen said the results of this study provide useful information about how search engine use has evolved over the past decade and clues about how to design better search engines to address users' learning needs in the future.

"If we can incorporate cognitive, affective and situational aspects of a person, there is the potential to really move search performance forward," Jansen said. "At its core, we are getting to the motivational elements of search."

Citation: Bernard J. Jansen, Danielle Booth, Brian Smith, 'Using the taxonomy of cognitive learning to model online searching', Information Processing&Management, Nov. 2009