Predictors of behavioral intentions in Web searching



The increased diversity of Web users warrants examining users' intentions in particular information-seeking behaviors. This is challenging, however, as the user's intentions are hidden on the Web and can only be partially revealed from implicit indicators in the traces users leave behind while they browse through a Web site. In information behavior studies, the nature of intention has been examined and the contingent link between intentions and information-seeking behavior has been explored by few researchers (Hert, 1996; Xie, 2000). However, those studies focused only on developing different categorizations of user intentions themselves and did not clarify the predictors of behavioral intentions, especially in the Web environment.

The purpose of this study is to examine predictors of intentions from the perspective of searchers. Three separate but related factors – perceived difficulty, self-efficacy, and affective attitude – were considered as predictors of behavioral intentions. This project explores how those predictors of intention affect Web search performance, including searchers' task completion time, their satisfaction with the search, and success in locating relevant results. Specifically, the two principal questions underlying this study are: 1. How are searchers' perceived difficulty, self-efficacy, and affective attitude related to one another? 2. How do searchers' perceived difficulty, self-efficacy, and affective attitude influence their task completion time, search satisfaction, and search success? Do searchers with less difficulty, more confidence, and more pleasure perform better in searching?


Perceived difficulty, self-efficacy, and affective attitude have been named as sound predictors of intention based on social psychology's Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1985), where intention is a major determinant of a behavior and an indication of an individual's readiness to perform a given behavior. Some predictors of intention influence behavior indirectly through intentions, but in information behavior studies, the above three have been regarded as being immediate and direct, rather than indirect.

First, the issue of perceived difficulty has rarely been investigated. Many studies measure a task's complexity or difficulty by the number of search terms (Saracevic, Kantor, Chamis & Trivision, 1988); thus, it has been regarded as an objective variable. Recently, a number of studies (Bell & Ruthven, 2004; Byström & Järvelin, 1995; Vakkari, 1999) paid much more attention to task complexity and tried to connect it to information seeking and use. One consensus of these investigations is that tasks can be categorized according to complexity or difficulty; task complexity has been conceptualized as an a priori determinability of tasks. However, assessing the level of perceived difficulty or complexity in a given search task has received less attention in information behavior studies.

Second, self-efficacy, which is the belief that one has the capability to perform a particular behavior (Compeau & Higgins, 1985), has often been recognized as one of the motivational factors in information seeking. Nahl (1995) found that novices who believe in their successful search performance are more efficient and adaptive searchers than those who express doubt and a lack of self-confidence in their ability to carry out successful searches. Gender differences were observed in searchers' self-perceived online searching competence. Hargittai and Shafer's study (2006) reported that while men and women do not differ greatly in their online abilities, women's self-assessed skill is significantly lower than that of men.

Third, there have been attempts to consider what affective/emotional states motivate information seeking. These studies have largely focused on negative emotions such as uncertainty or anxiety (Kuhlthau, 1991; Nahl, 1998). Affective experience in information seeking was first addressed by Kuhlthau (1991), who presented a framework for understanding users' emotional states as they sought information in the researcher's information search process model. Based on Kuhlthau's ideas, a number of empirical studies revealed that various affective states of users, such as joy, satisfaction, frustration, confusion, and anxiety, influence information-seeking behavior (Bilal, 2005; Wang & Tenopir, 1998)


Twenty-eight graduate students who took an online information retrieval course were recruited for the pilot study of this project. This study occurred in an experimental setting where all participants completed the same search task in each condition. Three factual search tasks were chosen that required locating a definite answer that did not vary in the volume of desired outcome depending on the searcher's personal preferences or expectations. The sequence of the search tasks were randomly assigned to minimize order effects. Among three tasks, only two tasks were included for its data analysis in this paper.

Three independent variables were chosen for searchers' predictors of intentions, and participants were asked to articulate them using a 7-point scale prior to conducting their search tasks. Perceived difficulty was measured in response to the question: “How difficult do you think this search task will be?” Self-efficacy was rated with the question: “How confident do you feel of being able to find an answer for this search task?” Affective attitude was measured with the question: “How much would you like to do this search task?” In addition, three dependent variables were adopted to reflect searchers' performance: searchers' satisfaction, search task success, and task completion time. Searchers' satisfaction was assessed with the question: “How satisfied are you with your search?” Task success has only one of two separate values, failure or success, which was assigned by a researcher. Task completion time was measured as the time in seconds from the moment the subject opened the browser until the subject terminated the task.


Descriptive statistics were performed to summarize the three independent variables and their inter-relationships. Overall, participants presented a positive affective attitude toward searching (M=4.61) and had strong confidence in completing given search tasks (M=5.00). However, their perceived level of difficulty is still a bit high (M=4.15). The next step was to test whether there was any relationship among the three variables. There was a significant negative correlation between perceived difficulty and self-efficacy (r=-.446, p<.01) as well as a significant positive correlation between self-efficacy and affective attitude (r=.497, p<.01). This implies that participants who expected the assigned search task to be more difficult tend to have lower confidence. And participants who were confident in completing given search tasks tend to have more positive attitude. However, there was no correlation between perceived difficulty and affective attitude.

To determine if a significant difference existed between subjects who succeeded in their search and those who did not in terms of the three predictors, a chi-square test was conducted. For that, non-normally distributed variables were dichotomized using the median of the data distribution as a cut-off point. Perceived difficulty, self-efficacy, and affective attitude were categorized into two groups: high perceived difficulty vs. low perceived difficulty: high self-efficacy vs. low self-efficacy: and positive affective attitude vs. negative affective attitude. The chi-square results show, surprisingly, that search success was found to be significantly related to searchers' affective attitude (χ2= 4.31, p<.05). Searchers who have more positive attitude are likely to succeed in their search.

A t-test was conducted to compare the search satisfaction of the two groups. The result indicated that there is a significant difference in the level of satisfaction with the search only between participants with positive affective attitude and those with negative affective attitude (t=2.85, p<.01). Participants who had a more positive affective attitude tend to have higher satisfaction with their search. However, search satisfaction was not found to be significantly related to searchers' perceived difficulty and self-efficacy. In addition, a t-test was performed to determine if there was a significant difference in the task completion time between the two groups. It was found that the task completion time was not related with searchers' perceived difficulty, self-efficacy, or affective attitude.


Searchers' intentions in seeking information on the Web can be reliable predictors of the success of their search performance. Therefore, identifying the driving forces behind search intentions is the key to understanding search behaviors and helping searchers perform effective and efficient searches. This study deepened our understanding of the factors underlying people's intentions to search for information on the Web, especially through its focus on perceived difficulty, self-efficacy, and affective attitude. The results presented in this paper, though they were derived from the small number of participants, provide evidence supporting affective attitude is a predictor of intention, which influences search performance.