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Examining Users on News Provider Web Sites: A Review of Methodology

William Gibbs

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 3, Issue 3, May 2008, pp. 129-148

Article Contents


It is important to point out that the observational findings presented here are not conclusive due to the limitations and scope of this project. The author employed the methods in specific ways and he looked at particular news Web sites with a unique population. Additional research is required to examine information-seeking behaviors across larger groups with a greater variety of news sites and for longer time durations.

General interactions

Using the Morae software, general interaction measures were easily obtained. On average, participants spent four minutes on each information task. The time duration appears long given that most people spend less than two minutes visiting a Web site. However, the information tasks and the controlled setting may have made participants persist when they would otherwise abandon the search. Nielsen and Loranger (2006) report that users spend 31 seconds on the home page and typically avoid scrolling. Participants stayed slightly longer (45 seconds) on home pages and based on a detailed analysis of eight participants, all users scrolled and spent 34% of their time scrolling. These findings may reflect the fact that the news sites used in the project (and many other news provider sites) have much breadth with numerous links on the home page, and pages are typically long requiring users to scroll.

Based on WBG, information seeking trails and recurrence rate analysis, participants exhibited a tendency toward a breadth-first search approach (Jenkins, Corritore, & Wiedenbeck, 2001) often associated with Web novices. Sixty-one percent of all users had at least one recurrence of the home page and 71% of directed users had one or more recurrence of SERP. Users appeared to use either home or the SERP as a hub from which they made short steps away and then returned. The finding is surprising given that Web novices typically exhibit this pattern but in this project participants were experienced at Web browsing. While speculative, the pattern of browsing may be indicative of information seeking on news sites whereby users identify a new story of interest on the home page, browse to the story, and then return home (or to the SERP) to find additional news stories of interest.

Browsing versus search

Some researchers cite users' inclination to use search (Nielsen & Loranger, 2006) while others report that users choose to browse over search and they are more successful at finding the target content (Campagnoni & Erlich, 1989; Katz & Byrne, 2003; Miller, 2005). In this project, participants' first inclination was to browse rather than search regardless of task (directed or semi-directed). In most cases, they resorted to search only after they were unsuccessful at locating information. With the prevalence and sophistication of search engines, it is surprising that users chose browsing over search. This suggest that when browsing news sites, users are likely to browse before attempting search and thus the design of sites should support user browsing.

Information seeking behaviors

During information seeking tasks, the most common type of interaction was forward-to-browse. When forward-to-browse and back-to-browse are combined they comprised over 88% of all interactions and search interactions comprised only 12%. This finding suggests that much interaction will involve browsing using hyperlinks and, to a considerable extent, users will be engaged with page content and navigating it with hyperlinks. In this regard, a noteworthy observation made by almost all participants related to interruptions caused by advertisements. Aside from expressing frustration with ads, participant browsing was at times diverted by them. Ads do interrupt browsing and reading, especially when embedded within text. A number of participants suggested that they should be positioned in a column on the right side of the page.

When behaviors are compared by tasks, differences appeared that may have implications for site developers. For instance, semi-directed users engaged in more scrolling and were more inclined to click images and scan advertisements. Conversely, directed users were inclined to search and to scan links while scrolling down. This is relevant because most participants complained about ads and felt they interrupted browsing. While preliminary, these findings suggest that semi-directed users are more inclined to look at ads. One can envision browsers that are intelligent enough to sense when a user is semi-directed and based on their behaviors, the browser displays, highlights, or repositions ads making them more prominent. Conversely, as the user becomes more directed, ads may dim or be redistributed on the page to facilitate information seeking. This is highly speculative and, from advertisers' perspective, more research is needed to ascertain if users will look at ads that dynamically adjust to accommodate information foraging compared to those that seemingly intrude on browsing. Ads will likely remain part of the browsing experience. However, their ability to respond to user behaviors or needs may be mutually beneficial to users as well as advertisers.

Interaction variance is important because it has implications for Web personalization and predicting information retrieval (White & Drucker, 2007). Overall, participant information browsing events were consistent both within-user and across users. There was greater variance across users, which suggests that while an individual's information foraging may have been consistent from one event to the next, it differed from the foraging behavior of other participants. While more research is needed, this intimates that users will vary in how they use online news sites and thus providing users the capability to personalize sites may better accommodate their browsing needs.


The think aloud protocol helped the observer to accurately identify user actions and to understand his or her rationale for executing an action. Measures of time and mouse clicks afforded general indicators about browsing but needed to be supplemented with other, generally more time consuming, means that provided information about browsing directionality, complexity, and temporal order. As the level of analysis became more granular, greater specificity was achieved using the information seek behavior methods described earlier.


The author wishes to thank Lavanya Jayarama for all her research assistance that was valuable to this project.

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