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How do Consumers Form Online Search Queries? The Importance of Semantic Relationships Between Queries and Results

 

We explore how consumers form online search queries, and in particular the link between consumers’ content preferences and their search queries. The existence of semantic relationships between queries and results differentiates query formation from traditional, discrete-choice based search. Accordingly, our research questions are as follows: (i) Under which conditions is it more beneficial for consumers to leverage the semantic relationships between queries and results when formulating queries? (ii) Are consumers able to leverage semantic relationships when formulating queries? (iii) How should researchers represent these semantic relationships? (v) What are consumers’ beliefs on these semantic relationships? We find that leveraging semantic relationships is particularly useful in retrieving content that is aligned with consumers’ preferences, when these preferences are less specific and when it is costly to formulate longer queries. We also find that consumers have the ability to formulate queries that leverage semantic relationships. Consequently, models of search query formation should capture consumers’ beliefs on a set of semantic relationships, which capture the probability that any query will activate any set of words. Fortunately, we show that these semantic relationships may be approximated parsimoniously by functions of asymmetric activation probabilities at the word level. We find that consumers’ beliefs on these relationships are biased upwards, and that they are not asymmetric enough. Our research opens the door for the development of search models that can infer consumers’ preferences from their queries

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