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Information Foraging – How We Hunt Online

There’s a theory about how humans hunt information, developed by smart people from Palo Alto Research Center way back in the 90s. It’s called information foraging and it’s about how we’re all just monkeys wearing clothes.

This calculation can be applied to both animals and humans:

Rate of gain = information value / cost associated with obtaining that information.

When we’re searching for information online, we’ll decide which source to use based on how likely it is we’ll get what we’re looking for and how much effort we’ll have to expend to get it. We want the maximum outcome for the minimum effort.

Animals make decisions about finding food in the same way: how likely is it they’ll find food vs. how much effort is it going to take? I’d argue that quality is also a factor: perhaps we’d take the extra time to read a lengthier article if we knew the source was higher quality.

How information foraging works

1. Goal

An animal’s goal is food. The internet users’s goal is information.

An animal mostly sticks to a reliable diet. And guess what – humans like to stick to what they know in their information foraging. We have a list of trusted sources, according to our tastes, and venturing outside of that list makes us sceptical and quick to judge.

“Basic laziness is a human characteristic that might be survival-related (don’t exert yourself unless you have to).

Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group

2. Patch

For the animal, the patch is a place with potential sources of food. For the internet user, the patch is a website – or, with no-click SERPs, the search results.

3. Scent

The animal uses scent to assess how bountiful the patch will be. We, the human, assess how promising a source of information we’ve found is.

What gives us that scent? It starts right in the SERPs, with little tasty morsels like URL, page title and meta description.

When we land on the website, we snuffle about for relevance – scanning images and keywords.

Links between the text and the imagery that aren’t INSTANTLY recognisable may be dismissed as not relevant because that’s how fast our brains are working when we seek information. If your imagery doesn’t tell a person they’ve landed on the right website, they won’t hang around to find out why.

“If the user is searching for dish towels and lands on a site with pictures of strawberries, beer, and candy, she may assume that this page is unlikely to contain what she needs simply because the scent points into a different direction.”

Therese Fessenden, Nielsen Norman Group

4. Herd

I’ve added herd. It feeds into everything else but it’s important enough to be its own factor in information foraging, in my opinion.

Our little foraging animal relies on its fellows to give clues about where it can find food. We humans – guess what! – also rely on our fellows to help us find the information we need.

Social foraging

Social foraging lets us make decisions based on what other people have put the effort into deciding. We assume that they’ve done the hard work for us.

This is why reviews are so important for our businesses. Humans are biased towards accepting other people’s analysis of our products and services – far beyond what we tell them ourselves.

Social media is also vital for this: we have to become a positive feature in the herd mentality. What I call ‘brand SEO’ builds a little world of connected information about us and our product: our website, our social platforms, articles about us, reviews, listings… All the things that establish us as real and trustworthy.

Where traditionally information foraging has ended (the user has found the information they were seeking) often, we’ll now see users leaving to find social reinforcement for their decision. That’s when you need brand SEO.

File this under ‘good to know’

It’s always useful to know a bit about psychology when you’re trying to make people buy things from you.

If you want to know more about how to leverage patterns in human behaviour, start with the behavioural science cheat sheet.

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