How do young adults access websites?

By | September 14, 2010

I am currently at the fifth IGF in Vilnius and yesterday I presented some data from our study on the online routines of the digital natives at the GigaNet.  Here, i would like to share one observation that I find particularly interesting.  In the graph below you can see a summary of our coding of how our participants reached website during our observation sessions. It reflects coding of over 650 instance of accessing website in each China and the USArrivingAtAWebsite-Summary.

As we can see, in most cases, our participants searched; this is consistent across both groups and I think was not particularly surprising.  Similarly, the use of bookmarks was equally consistent across both groups, which in my view was more surprising (perhaps since I am not a big bookmark user).

The differences, as you can see, were in the use of autocomplete and reliance on links.  Interestingly, in the Chinese sample, there were significantly more instances of using reliance on links compared to the use of autocomplete.  In the US sample what we see is practically a mirror image of this trend – significantly larger proportion of instances involved the use of autocomplete.

What makes it even more interesting is a glimpse at where do the Chinese participants follow the links from.  We are still organizing that data, but my initial observation is that many of those are coming from websites that basically large repositories of links (for example take a look at or

All this brings up some thoughts about the role of English in the online experience.  In my view, one plausable explanation of this data can be the knowledge of English language.  I can see how use of the autocomplete function comes more “naturally” to the native speakers, compared to those for whom English is a second language.  The large collections of links that were utilized by our Chinese participants, further support this idea – why would you make an effort of typing in an inconvenient language, when you can go to just one website, where all the links you use are?

There are currently more questions than statements suggested by the snippet above – there is still a lot of work to be done on these data.  Having said that, I’d love to hear your thought about this little observation.  Please share…

You can find the slides from the presentation here.

13 thoughts on “How do young adults access websites?

  1. Amna

    This is interesting. How did you carry out the study? I mean did you give the participants of the study some guidelines for searching or asked them to randomly document their search habits in a questionnaire?

    Interestingly, I would have been expecting otherwise for non-native speakers in case of auto-complete. I always thought that non-native speakers rely more on auto-complete as it seems to offer more interesting suggestions than they can think on their own. Then maybe, I am thinking if you carry out a search on Indians/Pakistanis, it maybe the case.

    1. Dima Post author

      Sorry, Amna, that it takes me forever to respond. IGF was rather busy and now i am catching up with everything I’ve missed while being away.

      I hope to have a couple of papers soon coming from these data and there will be a more detailed explanation of the method. The short version is that this numbers actually reflect people’s behavior. They were asked to recall their online routines and then also a number of specific instances of them accessing various types of websites and engaging in various types of online activities. Of course this is not clear of influence by the settings of the study, but i think it is reasonably close to the ways they behave in their natural settings. Does it make sense?

      I also find the patterns of use of autocomplete interesting, but I am not sure i have a coherent explanation of why it happens. We have data on the self-assessed level of knowledge of English and I suspect this can explain some of it. I can see how people may struggle with English enough for it to be too much of a burden to use more than a handful of websites. I think you should be rather comfortable with English to play with the autocomplete. But that’s a speculation.

      That being said, I’d love to extend this study to other cultural groups. Perhaps at a later stage…

  2. Paul Muchene

    Interesting statistics. Would love to know what method you used to collect these statistics. Most auto-complete functions return text in English or in the Latin Script. If auto-complete could support more languages that do not use the latin script then perhaps the web access habits would vary considerably in China. Perhaps you could consider in future the role IDN plays in Internet access in China Would most users prefer IDNs say to using bookmarks?

    1. Dima Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Paul Muchene, and please excuse me for taking so long to respond. I’ve talked briefly about the method of data collection in response to Amna’s comment above. Please let me know if you have any further questions about at this stage. As i mentioned to Amna, I hope to have some papers to come out of this soon and there will be a much more detailed report on methods.

      As to autocomplete, I am not sure how it works in Chinese, but I know that in other languages it does work. I know that when i start typing in Hebrew or in Russian, the browser uses the title of the webpage for autocomplete. In other words, i can definitely (and in fact I am doing that) use autocomplete in non-Roman scripts. Did you have a different experience?

      1. Paul Muchene

        I use Mozilla Firefox for browsing. Autocomplete is fully supported with even hints that Mozilla incorporates machine learning algorithms to make the browser much ‘smarter’. Nowadays browsers like Google Chrome allow the end-user to place search terms in the navigation bar previously reserved for URLs with autocomplete enabled by default. Just recently Google added autocomplete functions on its search page. I use this facility when I am sometimes not sure of my search terms. For more about how machine learning is incorporated into autocomplete for Mozilla browsers take a look at this page

        1. Dima Post author

          Thank you, Paul Muchene! Do you use auto-complete in English only or in other languages as well?

          1. Paul Muchene

            Thanks Dima! Un/Fortunately English is my Lingua Franca for day to day use. I hardly use Swahili and speak a smattering of the language. Although Swahili can be used in Google auto-completion, I hardly use it and all my searches and use of auto-complete are in the English language.

          2. Dima

            Thanks again!
            Actually, when I say “autocomplete” in this context, i mean the autocomplete function in the address bar (not in the Google search bar). Though from your response i take it you are still primarily an Emglish user.

          3. Paul Muchene

            In that case you are correct. I do use autocomplete in the navigation bar pretty often and only in English.

          4. Chen

            Hello Dima! It is very interesting. I use Chinese and English, mostly Chinese. And I don’t use the auto complete function at all.
            It might because in Chinese, one character can mean so many things and you have to type in many characters to get the ideal result. It is just easier to use a search engine that more results can be reviewed in same page.

          5. Dima Post author

            Thank you, Chen! This makes perfect sense. I was under the impression, though, that many of these sites are in Pinying or using Arabic numerals. Am I mistaken?

          6. Chen

            Well, for the local sites, they name it in Chinese and the URL can be anything, pinyin, English, numbers…And the way they are using numbers in the URL, is just a way to get a shorter URL that easier to remember.(such as ‘114la’ you mentioned in the article).
            For international sites, they usually give a Chinese name, such as Google, it has a two character formed Chinese name (pinyin will be ‘guge’) which the pronunciation is similar to English, yet have a meaning. The URL remains.

            Not sure if this is this is what you are not certain about.

          7. Chen

            Sorry, am I talking too much? Another thought just came into my mind, about the Arabic number websites.
            It may not just because it is shorter and easier to remember, but also related with Chinese the language.
            In Chinese, the characters are made by the shape instead of pronunciation. So, one same pronunciation can be hundreds of characters. It is more likely to have the same pronounced number to form a meaning.
            Like in English, ‘2’ can be ‘to’ or ‘too’. In Chinese, 2 can be lots of meanings. And we usually make sentences. Most popular ones, ‘520’ mans ‘I love you’, ‘258’ means, ‘love me please’, ‘168’ means ‘get rich on your way’…

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