Access Denied: Patterns of Consumer Internet Information Search and the Effects of Internet Search Expertise

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School of Business | Doctoral thesis (monograph) | Defence date: 2003-05-13
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Acta Universitatis oeconomicae Helsingiensis. A, 214
The Internet is said to improve the consumer’s position in relation to businesses. This is said to result from the improved accessibility of consumer information and, consequently, better decision-making. However, certain difficulties hinder the way to the improved situation. The Internet brings about completely new types of difficulty for consumers, as it is an entirely consumer-driven setting. The study argues that consumers’ Internet search patterns largely determine the information to which the consumer has access. The relevance of this information is vital – it is only used in a decision if it is perceived to match the consumer’s information needs. Access to relevant online information requires an ability to identify and choose appropriate search patterns. The focus is thus on the patterns of Internet search and Internet search expertise. Typologies are created based on differences among seekers of information (i.e. people) and paths to information in the searches. The first finding of the study suggests that in contrast to the previous classifications of seekers, on the Internet, a different approach to “search” and its dimensions is needed. Six Internet seeker typologies emerge based on their characteristic features: high knowledge seekers, navigators, low seekers, social seekers, offline ad seekers, and retail seekers. The composition of the clusters appears stable based on external validation. In previous studies, it is commonly assumed that the inherent properties of information sources distinguish among the search patterns. Results indicate that in online search, the way through which the consumer finds each of the sources is emphasized, rather than the source as such. The search paths in online search belong to heuristic or analytical modes. Specific coding is developed for analyzing the paths to the information. The second finding indicates that consumers’ Internet searches largely rely on heuristics, in other words, trial and error. This happens to the extent that heuristic search is more prominent than analytical search in consumer information acquisition. Although the diagnosticity (i.e. likelihood of finding sufficient information to terminate search) of heuristic search is rather low, it gives the consumer flexibility with different information types. This suggests an interesting conflict between consumers’ specific information needs and flexibility of low-specificity searches. The third finding is that locating information online requires capabilities of consumers. To embrace these, the study introduces the concept of “Internet search expertise”. Structural equation modeling is used to assess its effects. The results show that Internet search expertise increases the effectiveness of the search (gives greater diversity of information) but has negative effects on the efficiency of the search (increases effort). The results may be due to the motivational effects – consumers with Internet search expertise are also highly motivated to search online, to the extent that the relative productivity of the search starts to decrease. Comparisons of two conflicting theories on the relation of Internet search expertise and product class knowledge are performed. One interpretation suggests that Internet search expertise compensates for the lack of product class knowledge, as online information sources are accessible in a uniform fashion. The other suggests that the best results in search require “double expertise”, i.e. presence of both capabilities. The structural equation models support the first theory: Internet search expertise has a positive effect on the diversity of information found, while product class knowledge fails to achieve statistical significance. On the other hand, the results from classifying information seeker types appear to countervail these findings, as product class knowledge is clearly emphasized in certain groups.
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Uusitalo, Liisa, professor
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