Internet trends: marketing research & predictions

Tell Me ‘Why’?

December 8th, 2008 by


tell me why
Ok -its official now – having sex is the favourite free activity in US , atleast for the male. And here is what I am also seeing in Ask Top 10 question searches. The Top 5 being

#1 How do I get pregnant?
#2 How do I lose weight?
#3 How do I write a resume?
#4 How much is minimum wage?
#5 How much is my car worth?

Recessions have long been linked to an increase in birthrates & Malcolm Gladwell advocates recession is the best time to start a family.

But why 8 out of Ask top 10 questions are “How”?? Interestingly -Taly earlier pointed out the DIY trend & highlighted that the top search queries under “how to” can be categorized into three groups:

1. Accomplishing a task (how to: tie a tie, make a movie, solve a Rubic’s cube, draw (specifically Japanese anime characters!)
2. Sexual needs (yes, indeed..)
3. Self improvement (how to: lose weight, gain weight, write a resume)

A quick research in edicts lexicon index vis-a-vis Google trends shows following outcome :


 Word   Brown Corpus Freq    Search Volume Index  
 How  0.0823%  1.0
 What  0.1878%  0.63
 Why  0.0398%  0.10

As it turns out in our daily conversations we are only twice likely to phrase a question with “How” than “Why”. Whereas in our search behavior we are 10 times more likely to phrase a question with “How”.

Any answer “why”?

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6 Responses

  1. Dave Says:

    My guess is that there is an error in the collecting of the data due to how users phrase searches.

    I don’t know where I read the study but I saw some data a while back that suggested that women often use full phrases (ie. how can I loose weight?) where men use keywords (ie. loosing weight).

    Both are looking for the same information, their intent is identical, but one would be counted and the other wouldn’t because of the omitted word ‘how’.

    Also, in theory users might be specifically omitting the word ‘why’ from their seraches because a.) the question can be worded in a way where the meaning is the same but without the word why (ie. ‘reason’ for a blue sky. instead of ‘why’ is the sky blue?). b.) users have learned that results are more acurate if they omit the word.

    Finally, it might be due to the very nature of the internet and the nature of the word ‘why’. The top 10 list certainly suggests that users seek specific data to a problem. It might just be that users are not interested in/don’t search for broad questions (‘why’ do I gain weight? they might not care why they want to know the ‘how’ of fixing it).

    Either way it becomes important for marketing managers to start looking at data like this.

  2. Wolf Says:

    I would especially add to Dave’s last point by looking at one’s personal behaviour.

    “Why” asks for a reason for things we want to understand the motivation, the background agenda of somebody. We ask “Why did he/she do this?” in our conversations to try to understand that person better. It is a sign of improving our social skills.

    The internet search engine, however is a knowledge base that we use to find information that says how things work. “How does an engine work?” more than “Why does an engine work?”. It is like an encyclopaedia and a library. We go there to find out about things and that means “how” not “why”. Because the “why” of how things do what they do is human behaviour. “Why do we use engines?” does not require Google search, “How do we use engines?” more so.

    The internet is not yet a person (a friend, a counselor, doctor, etc.). That is how I would explain why people search more for “how” and ask more for “why”. 🙂

  3. Taly Weiss Says:

    Interesting question!
    I think it reflects the way we conceptualize the web:
    people perceive the “how to” as a more popular question
    and when they search for it – they understand they need to catch up with popularity.
    Does it make sense?

  4. Randy Says:

    I like Wolf’s idea but think there is more to it. Deep down we care less why things work. We have run out of time to contemplate the rationale, we are all consumed with the ability to recreate and achieve results.

    Most of us are unconcerned why things work, we just want to know how they work. Forget thermodynamics and protein denaturing and teach me how to make an egg sandwich.

    Knowing why an egg cooks and knowing how to cook an egg are 2 different things and one is exceedingly more useful than the other in everyday life.

  5. eliezershalev Says:

    from cognitive studies of behavior (some of which i conduct myself) it is a robust finding that “how” and “why” differ in many aspects. one relevant here is that “how” is more practical, proximal in time and entails higher tendency to act. “why” is borader in scope, optimistic yet distal in time and hence delayed.

  6. Badri Says:

    I’d go with Wolf’s point and add that while searching on the net people are in the mode for “tell me what to do now”, so the how is more on their minds in that state than the why. “Why” is an innately deeper question than “How” and we’re unlikely to look to the net but more to people for an answer, hence the difference in percentages that started off this discussion. If at all the net is used for answers to “Why’s” then it’s likely that the researcher will trawl through several articles in a scholarly fashion rather than shoot off a quick question.

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