The Fragmentation of Search: Age and Gender Differences in a World of Proliferating Search Platforms

The times they are a-changin’.  Bob Dylan

These are times of change and volatility in the world of search.

Generative AI tools like Chat GPT are poised to upend the paradigm of search itself. The process of traditional search has become second-nature: enter keywords, and have the search engine point you to static webpages that appear to address what you might be searching for. Bonus points if the search engine knows enough about you to fill in the blanks, and effectively infer what you seek (unless you value privacy more) . Generative AI can completely upend the entire paradigm. 

But change is brewing in other ways as well, even within the world of traditional search behavior. Search is becoming less monolithic. Different people are searching in different places for different kinds of things. 

Google has enjoyed 20+ years of unquestioned supremacy in the search world. It became the largest search engine and the first to index a billion web pages back in 2000. It was not only the most dominant brand – it defined the category and the paradigm. That is changing.

To dig into this, I worked with data about search engine activity from Datos, a global clickstream data provider focused on licensing anonymized, at scale, privacy compliant datasets. I looked at March 2023 search data across a variety of sites, and explored how the data differed across genders and age groups. The results paint a picture (literally: see figure 1) of the fragmenting market for search.

The results first highlight the enduring power of Google. It is the largest circle on the chart, where circle size reflects the overall volume of search activity. And Google is located solidly in the middle of the chart, skewing slightly male (as does search activity as a whole), and solidly middle-of-the-pack in terms of age. 

Google’s search volume is not as dominant on the chart as one might expect, although it is four times larger than nearest competitor Amazon, with Bing and Yahoo close behind. Search activity on Amazon is of course distinctly different from Google – it is more product-focused and lower-funnel – as well as skewing slightly older and more evenly split between men and women. Stereotypes about women and shopping aside, women are in fact the Chief Purchasing Officers in most U.S. households, and that tendency is reflected here.

Bing and Yahoo are close behind Amazon in search volume, but are on different trajectories. Bing is booming, as I explored last month, now powered by AI and with a new conversational interface. Yahoo’s enduring presence may surprise some, but the legacy site continues to bring in significant traffic and search activity, particularly among older users.

The chart further illustrates the fragmentation of search, particularly to sites not historically known for search. Reddit appeals to a younger male audience, and is perhaps known most popularly as a place for stock market discussions and conspiracy theory rabbit holes. When I asked my informal focus group with young male Internet users, they highlighted two key use cases for Reddit search. First, when looking for things “that border on illegal.” But more broadly, Reddit is a go-to place when someone needs “real answers from real people.” When an incoming college freshman wanted information about campus dorms, he went to Reddit. He told me, “I couldn’t go to Google or the school website for the real scoop.”  In this sense it is like Yelp in consumer reviews, or Glassdoor for company reviews, but Reddit excels as a platform where search queries can spawn deeper conversations and answer more nuanced questions.

Searching on TikTok also skews younger and male. And although it is historically known as an entertainment platform, it is increasingly used as a search tool as well. When I was searching for enchilada recipes, TikTok was perfect, serving up a wealth of short videos, with all the variety and authenticity one might expect from user-generated content. The down-side for me personally is the enchilada recipes are now invading my “For You” feed.

At the other end of the age spectrum, DuckDuckGo users skew older. Still engaged by a traditional search experience, they value privacy assurances more than customized results informed by my search history. Had I used DuckDuckGo, I wouldn’t have enchilada recipes following me around the Internet.

Clearly, the world of search is fragmenting. Different people with different needs and experiences are searching in different ways and in different places. While Google’s dominance defined the last 20 years, the future will have more niches and be more complex.

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