Changes in web-user behaviour

Over the last few years, it has become much easier for people in Australia (and many similar countries) to go online. The relative cost of computers and internet connection has fallen significantly, and now free internet access is available in many libraries, community centres and social spaces. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that not everyone can participate in this online revolution; a combination of geographical, financial, psychosocial, physical and cognitive factors means there is still a great gap between the digital haves and have-nots.

The total number of internet users is increasing all the time, but perhaps more important is the increased diversity of people who are online. It appears however, that many website owners and developers are either reluctant, or unable, to make sites that cater to the needs of these different sections of the community.

Two projects compared

In 2007, I was asked to test the usability of a website for people who were homeless or in public housing. (It was expected the site would be primarily accessed from computers and/or kiosks in government offices and welfare organisations.) Five years later, in 2012, I had an opportunity to test another site that had been prepared for a target audience who were similarly marginalised in terms of education and internet experience. Most of the test participants for the two sites had lower-level reading abilities and very limited access to computers when compared to the general community. (For reasons of privacy and client confidentiality I cannot provide specific details.)

While all the 2007 test participants had used the internet at least once, the amount of use was generally very limited with only 28% reporting they used the internet for 5 hours a week or more. However, after being introduced to the test-site they appeared to be genuinely interested in using it to find information and actively explored the various navigation options, and most appeared to develop an understanding of the site navigation system with relative ease. Comments from participants included:

  • I just love using the computer – I didn’t realise there was so much you could do.
  • I thought it was tricky at the beginning because there is all these different sections to look at for where to go (for information), but it’s good.

As might be expected, all the test subjects in the 2012 project had greater opportunities to access the web than those in 2007. 50% of the participants reported using the internet every day and only 20% said they used it once a week or less. Most went online via computers owned by family members and friends, and/or with computers and free internet access provided by various community centres.

All participants for the 2012 review were recruited on the basis that they had used the internet before, but several maintained they had never used the web even though as one commented, “… but I use Facebook all the time to keep in touch.” For most of the others, web use, other than Facebook, was restricted to finding specific information (almost exclusively) via Google or visiting one or two other regular sites, usually to obtain sporting results.

Changes in web understanding and behaviour

Compared to the 2007 participants, those in 2012 appeared to have less interest, or more difficulty, in learning the basic concepts of website navigation. Several were confused by the common navigation terms “Home” and “About”, and tended to see these terms as relating directly to themselves or their situation, comments included:

  • Home is that Australia or where you live?
  • Is Home something to do with the home you came from?
  • What is About? Is that about the information you are looking for.
  • What’s the difference between Home and About?

This apparent decline in the ability to understand, or willingness to learn, the navigation systems common to many sites may not be confined to novice web users or people with lower-level reading skills like those involved in the 2012 project. Instead, an emerging ‘Facebook effect’ may help explain why some regular web users today are less likely to participate in the exploratory, web-surfing behaviour of the past.

Facebook effect

Facebook recently announced its one billionth account; that is a lot of people, even if all these accounts are do not represent separate individuals. On Facebook (and other social networking sites such as Linkedin) focus is on the individual and their friends, and the navigations systems reflect this focus with the link Home taking the user back to their first page, or Wall.

It is possible that the growing use of social-networking sites may be contributing to a general decline in how well some web users understand the basic structure and navigation systems of sites. And, this process is likely to be exacerbated by the increasing use of application-based interfaces for a wide range of web activities ranging from banking to train timetables.


Another possible reason for the change in web behaviour over the five years between these two projects is the growing reliance on Google to find information.

Over the years, I have noticed that many web users are either “surfers” or “searchers”. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, and all of us probably indulge in both at times, but it seems that when seeking information some people are more likely to surf from site to site and use the navigation within sites, whereas with others the first inclination is to search.

Google has become the colossus of search engines. In 2004, Google accounted for less than 50% or all search engine use and the next most popular at the time, Yahoo, was at 26%. But by 2012, 83% of searchers use Google, with Yahoo a very distant second at just 6%. (PEW ‘Search engine use over time’)

Google now logs about 2 billion search requests a day, from approximately 300 million people, and for an increasing number of people Google is becoming the standard entry point to pages deep within websites. Why bother learning how to use a site to find what you want when Google will do it for you? To quote one recent test participant:

  • I normally just type the words in Google and it comes up. I always select one of the top results, because if I type a good question it will be there.


It seems to me, that for at least for some sections of the web community, the mental model they have of the web toady may be very different to the one they had a few years ago. This could be contributing to an impaired understanding of the structure of conventional sites, and difficulty in using the navigation systems they contain.

At the same time, an increasing number of web users are not using internal information retrieval mechanisms to locate information within a site, turning instead to external search engines (mainly Google) as a way of providing quick and direct access to resources deep within sites.

A combination of this growing reliance on Google, and the suggested ‘Facebook effect’ may mean that it is time to reconsider some basic usability and accessibility principals, and the potential impact it could have for web users with cognitive impairments and/or limited internet experience. Furthermore, I believe it may have more general implications for WCAG 2, in particular, “Guideline 2.4 Navigable: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.

In a practical sense I think there are a number of issues that need to be considered:

Should we continue to use common navigation labels like “Home” and “About”? Depending on the primary audience for a site, perhaps we should be more specific, for example “[Organisation name]” and “About Us” or “About [organisation name]”.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to Success Criteria 2.4.8 (Location: Information about the user’s location within a set of Web pages is available.), and associated Technique G65 about the use of breadcrumbs. This Success Criteria is at level AAA and so often ignored, but since users are increasingly going directly to internal site pages maybe more emphasis should be placed on helping them determine where they are within a site.

In WCAG 2 the use of metadata is strongly advocated, but this is mainly from the perspective of helping people find conforming alternate versions of pages or content (Appendix C). Perhaps we could also use metadata to communicate the location of primary versions of content within the site structure in a way that is machine readable.

And finally, the art of Search Engine Optimisation, dark or not:  While the SEO marketing imperative is to get the highest possible ranking for an organisation in search engine results, maybe it is time for a slight shift in focus towards also providing users with more help in locating information within sites.


  1. Hi,
    are these reports available (or going to be) where we can read more specifics (what sites they went to, their reactions, tasks they failed on)?

    Also are you thinking of doing a study focussing on the changes of OS windowing environments (and their integration with online sites as “apps”) as well? I’m thinking of the iOS, Ubuntu Unity and Windows8/Metro interfaces, which removes even more separation of “my computer” from “internet” and encourages making “internet” mean “my facebook button, my youtube button, my mail button”.

  2. Roger,

    You bring up some interesting points here, particularly your last one. I completely agree that it’s time to focus on helping users find information on sites, but I disagree that that goal is so separate from SEO. Google’s doing a lot of work to reward sites that do exactly that (and, consequently, punish sites who don’t). Good on-page optimization helps search engines find the information that your site can provide users, and if your site is organized well, it should hold up to people’s (and the search engines’) expectations. I think we’ll soon see the effects of Google’s efforts in bettering the quality of the web reflected in more site’s structures, hopefully in line with the WCAG!

    Nice post!


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  4. Great research, Roger; well written and concisely described.

    I was absolutely surprised and intrigued that people who are familiar with the web are considering the “home” button about their own housing (skewed, obviously, because it was a site for people with housing concerns) and not a starting point for the site.

    The rise of social media has definitely changed the landscape of online design, so much so that Windows8 (Mobile, RT and Pro alike) have integrated it into their OS to try and blur the line between their “ecosystem” and those external services. A case of our tools affecting, or “designing” us.

    One thing I think you failed to mention though, is that ONE reason so many people use Google to find something even when they know the home URL of their target, is that Google does a better job of search results within sites than the sites do themselves. Situations where searching for a term in google can provide better results than using that same search term in the site itself.

    I also think the analogy of a website being like a physical space, that you can breadcrumb (hideous misnomer!) back “home” through is designed from the technology side out to the user and not one the user would consider natural to them.

    The concept of “home” in most websites is really “our official front door”, since so many people, as you clearly describe, arrive through their own personal “home” of Google or Facebook straight into the deep location that search delivered them into.

  5. They’re very interesting observations and it’s always good to challenge our assumptions.

    One of the dangers of being overly descriptive with every aspect of your site, using the long hand for every heading and description is that you can find that the resulting length and wordiness of the site actually degrades the accessibility and availability of the information.

    I think Google and Facebook also have very targeted UIs unique to their functions so there’s a danger in trying to trying to draw parallels with their page architecture and what makes a good interface.

    Also, how much of a homeless or intellectually impaired person’s comfort level with Facebook, Google and style page architecture is really about familiarity with those systems driven by their motivation to use those functions rather than the sites really having a good intuitive UX. This could give you a false positive on this kind of comparison. I know plenty of people from my parent’s generation who are occasional Facebook users find the interface complex and difficult to use.

    There is something to be said for fishing where the fish are and designing UX to meet user expectations, and there’s certainly some interesting observations you make but I’ll have to take my fish with a grain of salt.

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