Surveying the Territory: GVU's Five WWW User Surveys
Surveying the Territory:
Colleen M. Kehoe
Graphics, Visualization, & Usability Center
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA 30332-0280
GVU's Five WWW User Surveys
James E. Pitkow
Graphics, Visualization, & Usability Center
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA 30332-0280
Citation: Colleen M. Kehoe & James E. Pitkow, Surveying the Territory: GVU's Five WWW User Surveys, The World Wide Web Journal, Vol. 1, no. 3, 1996, p. 77-84.
WWW User Survey Home Page | For
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Five years is not very long on most historical scales, but for
the World Wide Web (WWW) it constitutes a lifetime. A question
almost as old as the web itself is, "Who is using it,
and for what?"
One way to answer this question is to use paper surveys, telephone surveys,
or diaries which are some of the
the same methods used to measure the audiences of other one-way
media such as television and radio. However, something interesting
happened in early 1994: the implementation of HTML Forms turned
the web into a two-way medium which made it possible to contact the
audience directly. To test the viability of the web as
a survey medium and collect preliminary data on the web population,
the first GVU WWW User Survey was conducted in January 1994.
Subsequent surveys have been conducted approximately every six
months. The collection of responses from over 55,000 Web users over
has given us a unique perspective on the advances in surveying technology
and methodology and changes in the web population itself. In the
following sections, we discuss what we have learned in each of these
With each survey, we have attempted to advance the state of surveying
technology and take advantage of new Web capabilities. Our first
survey was the first publicly accessible Web-based survey and it
pushed browsers that supported HTML Forms to their
limit. Error reports from respondents and garbled results in our database
quickly revealed differences between the various browsers in their handling
of Forms. Although most major differences have been resolved, some
minor ones persist and as a result, the data usually contains some
errors which much be corrected by hand.
Many important features of the architecture were introduced in the second
questioning, enforcing questionnaire completion, and allowing
user-selected IDs. Adaptive questioning means that the
questions a user is asked depend on his or her answers to previous
questions. 1 Questions adapted in a "batch mode" using CGI scripts:
respondents answered a
set of questions, submitted their answers, and got back a new set of
questions which were follow-ups to the ones they had submitted.
Also, questions from the original set which the respondent did not answer
were returned along with the follow-up questions.
Questionnaires were not
accepted until all of the questions asked had been answered, preventing
users from accidentally skipping questions. (For sensitive questions,
we provided a "Rather Not Say" option.)
The final feature introduced in the second survey was user-selected
IDs which were used to relate a particular user's answers across
different sections of the survey. After entering an ID, users
were given a URL which contained their ID to add to their hotlist
and which they could use to participate in future GVU surveys. This
simple mechanism would allow us to do a longitudinal analysis of users
who participated in several surveys.
Longitudinal tracking was tested during the third survey and fully
deployed during the fourth. When users identified themselves as having
previously participated in a GVU survey, either by using the URL they
had stored or by remembering their ID, we used a weak challenge-response
mechanism to verify their identity. Users were asked their location and
age during the last survey and if their responses matched those in our
database, we considered them verified. Note that this was not an attempt
at true, reliable authentication; it was simply designed to minimize
errors in identification and to discourage blatant mis-identification
attempts. Users who did not want to participate in the longitudinal
study were asked to simply choose a new ID for each survey.
To make it more convenient for users who participate in multiple surveys,
we filled in as much of the general demographics questionnaire as
possible with their previous answers. Users could then simply review
their answers and change them when necessary.
The recent introduction of Java to the web has opened a variety of
possibilities for improving the survey technology.
Originally, because of the web's limited interactivity, the vision
of truly adaptive questioning could not be fully realized.
While "batch mode" adaptability was a reasonable solution, it did not
have the natural, conversational progression of questions we
were aiming for. We felt a natural progression of questions would
help respondents to give better answers because the proceeding questions
would provide a context for the current question. Java made it possible to
have the desired degree of adaptability--each mouse click had the
potential to trigger new questions which could be asked immediately.
To test this idea, we implemented a prototype survey applet which
was offered as an option in the fifth survey. Since the survey applet
has not been discussed in any of our previous publications,
we describe it in more detail in the next section.
Prototype Survey Applet
There are three distinct portions of the survey applet: the adaption
engine, the user interface, and the server interface. At the heart of
the adaption engine is a simple production rule system. The survey
designer specifies the way the survey adapts
by creating a set of rules of the form: "if the answer to question
X is A, then ask question Y". Rules may have multiple conditions,
"(X is A) and (Y is B) and (Z is C)" but they can only test for equality
and not arbitrary expressions. Every time a user answers a
question, a "fact" is asserted, such as "the answer to question Z is D".
The list of rules is then evaluated to see if this new fact satisfies
any of the conditions. When all of the conditions for a rule are
satisfied, the rule "fires" and the new question is added to the list of
questions currently asked. If the question is already currently asked,
it is not asked again. This situation can occur if the same question
appears on the right-hand side of more than one rule. Questions which
have no conditions for being asked (i.e. the initial questions) are given
a condition of "NIL" which is always considered to be satisfied.
Facts may also be retracted if a user changes an
answer to a question. Any questions which were asked as a result of
the fact having been asserted are then "unasked".
When the applet is loaded, the questions and adaption rules are read in
and the initial questions are displayed.
The applet supports the standard types of survey questions:
checkbox, radio button, scrolling list, selection pop-up, and
text entry. All of these can have follow-up questions which,
when triggered, are placed on the screen slightly indented and
immediately following the question that triggered them. Another
strategy would be to append the new question to the end of the survey.
We chose the first
placement strategy because it places the new question (or questions)
in the user's current area of attention, making the connection
between the user's action (clicking) and the system's action (adding
the question) explicit. Connecting a particular answer to a particular
follow-up question also helps the user understand why that question
is being asked and provides a context for interpreting it. As with
the Forms version of the survey, the applet enforces question
completion. If a user tries to submit an incomplete questionnaire,
the unanswered questions are highlighted in red and can be easily
spotted when scrolling back through the survey.
The applet integrates seamlessly with the CGI scripts used to
collect the results. To submit the results, the applet creates
a URL which mimics the format of Forms output. The name-value
pairs are created from the answers to the currently asked questions
and appended to the URL for the CGI script to create a GET-style
URL. The applet then calls the showDocument() method on
this new URL, submitting the results and returning the user to
the same point they would have reached if they had used the
Forms version of the same questionnaire.
Evaluation of Prototype
Making the survey applet available to a large number of users revealed
some interesting technical issues. First, we expected that use of
the applet would decrease the load on our web server since adapting
questions and verifying completeness could be done locally, without
a call to the server.
This was not the case, however, because each
"module" needed by the survey applet was retrieved by a separate call
to the server. In object-oriented programming, programs consist of a
set of objects. In Java, these objects are called "classes" and each
class is stored in a separate file. There are approximately 25 classes used in
the applet which currently must be retrieved with 25 separate calls.
Not only did this make loading the applet very slow, but it required
many more calls to the server than the Forms version does. (Granted,
the classes only have to be retrieved once even if the applet is
run several times for different questionnaires.
Even taking this into account, the Forms version requires fewer
calls to the server to complete the main part of the survey.) Having
fewer, but larger and more complex classes is one option, but it
violates good object-oriented design guidelines. A better
solution to this problem would be to allow an entire set of classes,
perhaps in a compressed format, to be retrieved with only one call to
the server. Another interesting revelation, which is probably
well-known to most Java programmers by this point, is that different
browsers (and different versions of the same browser) do not handle
Java applets the same way thereby defeating their cross-platform benefits.
This situation is very similar to the differences in the
handling of Forms a few years ago and will probably be resolved as
these browsers become more mature.
How can we ensure that the results of the survey are meaningful and
valid? The field of distributed, electronic surveying is still very new
and consequently any results obtained must be interpreted conservatively.
Our survey suffers two problems that limit our ability to generalize from
the results: self-selection and sampling. When a person decides to
participate in a survey, they select themselves. There is very little
researchers can do to persuade someone to participate if they simply
prefer not to. The potential problem is that this decision not to
participate may reflect some systematic judgment by a segment of
the population being studied, causing them to be excluded from the
results. However, all surveys have this problem to some extent;
when a potential respondent hangs-up on a telephone survey or does
not return a direct-mail survey, self-selection has occurred.
The more fundamental problem is sampling. There are basically two
types of sampling: random and non-random. Random sampling uses
various techniques to ensure that the people who answer the survey
are representative of the larger population being studied. The data
obtained from the survey can then be corrected if necessary and
used to make statistically valid estimates about the larger population.
Surveys which can make statements about number of people in the U.S. who
use the Internet or the WWW, for example, are using random sampling.
Our survey uses non-random sampling which means we rely on users to see
announcements of the survey in order to participate. Obviously, only
those uses who see the announcements ever have the chance to participate.
As a result, all
segments of the Web population may not be represented in our sample.
This reduces the ability of the gathered data to generalize to the
entire Web population. At the heart of the problem is the fact that
the Web does not yet have a broadcast mechanism nor a way of
registering individual users (with digital signatures, for example)
which makes it impossible to draw a random sample from a complete,
or nearly complete, list of Web users. Over the course of the
surveys we have used several methods to maximize the chances that
our respondents do represent the larger web population and measure
how well they do.
The first method we began using was promoting the
survey through diverse media to attract respondents, including:
We felt that by providing many channels to bring respondents to the
survey, we would attract a larger and more diverse set of users.
To determine if the different channels were indeed attracting different
sets of users, starting in the third survey, we have included a question
asking how the respondent found out about the survey. This allows us
to group respondents accordingly and look for differences between the
different populations, specifically gender differences.
For the third survey, we reported that
there were no significant differences between the response profiles of
women and men for the following categories: remembering to take the
survey, other Web pages, the newspaper, other sources, and listserve
announcements. There were differences found for: finding out via
friends, magazines, Usenet news, and the www-surveying mailing list.
Differences were even more pronounced in the fourth survey and
we expect to find the same in the fifth.
Given the low effectiveness of all but other Web pages and Usenet news
announcements, which account for well over 50% of the respondents, most
of these differences lead to nominal effects. To be conclusive, we
would need to examine other basic demographics (e.g. age, location,
income) across the different populations, as well. The differences
in gender across the populations, however, are a positive
indication that the different channels are reaching different sets
of web users.
- links to the survey from high-exposure, general-interest Web
sites, such as NCSA's "What's New", Yahoo, Lycos, CNN, etc.,
- announcements on WWW and Internet related Usenet newsgroups,
- coverage in national and local newspapers and trade magazines,
- an announcement on the www-surveying mailing list which
we maintain for users who would like to be notified about GVU survey
Another method we rely on is oversampling: collecting data from many
more users that are required for a valid random sample. For the third
and fourth surveys, we were able to collect data from approximately
1 out of every 1000 web users (based on current estimates of the
number of people with web access). For random
sample surveys, having a large sample size does not increase the
degree of accuracy of the results. Instead, the accuracy
depends on how well the sample was chosen and other factors [Fowler 1993].
Since we use non-random sampling and do not explicitly choose a sample,
having a large sample size makes it less likely that we are
systematically excluding large segments of the population.
Oversampling is a fairly inexpensive way to add more credibility to a
non-random web-based survey. The cost to actually collect data from
extra users is minimal compared to other surveying methods; most
of the expense is in the fixed costs of survey development and equipment
and does not depend on the number of users surveyed.
When conducting a survey it is also valuable to know something
about those who had the opportunity to respond, but did not. Ideally,
we would like to know why they did not respond, but in most cases this
is impossible. Instead most surveys simply measure the rate of
non-response--the number of users who chose not to respond. For the
third survey, we developed a similar measure of attrition rates. Attrition
can best be thought of in terms of the paths taken by users through an
information space. These paths are determined by the underlying
structure of hyperlinks, that is, which pages are connected to
which other pages. We know that some users will visit a
page and not continue
traversing the hyperlinks contained in that page. Others, however,
will proceed to traverse the presented links, thus continuing down a
path. Attrition for a particular survey can be understood as a measure of
the percentage of users who began that survey, but who did not complete
it. Attrition is calculated across a group of users.
Attrition curves are defined as the plot of attrition ratios for all
pages along a certain path. A complete discussion of the attrition
analysis can be found in [Pitkow & Kehoe 95]. Excluding one
questionnaire that had technical problems with submission, attrition rates
for the third survey ranged from 4.54% to 12.58%.
Around the time that the fourth survey was completed, several other
North American random-sample surveys released the results of their
studies of Web and Internet users [Nielsen, FIND/SVP, O'Reilly].
These surveys used random-digit dialing (Nielsen, FIND/SVP, O'Reilly),
an on-line questionnaire (FIND/SVP), and focus groups (FIND/SVP) to
collect data on Internet and Web users. An obvious method of investigating the biases introduced by non-random
sampling is to compare our results to theirs. The fourth
survey's ratios for gender and other core demographic characteristics like
income, marital status, etc., are almost exactly those reported by these
other surveys. While our surveys do attract heavier Web users than do
random phone-based surveys, it does not appear that frequency of Web use is
a differentiating characteristic within the population. This result is
both surprising and encouraging for web-based surveying.
These methods when coupled with conservative interpretation of the
data, lend a great deal of credibility to the results from the survey.
One possible improvement that we are considering for future
surveys is to select a random sample from the collected results. Data from
other questions in the survey, such as the number of
hours spent on the web, could be used to take into account the probability
of selecting each person in the sample. Results obtained with this method
could then be used to make statistically valid statements about the web
population as a whole. Still, we remain unconvinced that the survey's
sampling methodology is optimal and welcome suggestions and further
comments on this subject.
One of the most interesting aspects of studying the Web population is
documenting the swift changes that it has gone through. While certain
characteristics of the Web users sampled in the Surveys has remained
the same or changed slightly, other characteristics have changed
dramatically. More than ever, the users in the most recent surveys
represent less and less the "technology developers/pioneers" of the
earlier surveys (primarily young, computer-savvy users) and more of
what we refer to as the "early adopters/seekers of technology." The
adopters do not typically have access to the Web through work or
school, but actively seek out local or major Internet access
providers. As the Web continues to expand its horizon of users, we
expect, and indeed find, that more and more users from diverse
segments of the population participate in the Surveys. Please refer
to the results from the individual surveys for more complete results.
The average age of respondents in the fifth survey is 32.95 years which
is very close to the average from the fourth (32.7 years) and down
two years from the third (35.0). Although the average age is relatively
stable, we do notice dramatic changes in the age distribution. With
each survey, the curve becomes flatter as more people in both ends
of the age spectrum start using the Web.
The gender ratio continues to become more balanced with females
representing 31.45% of the respondents and males representing 68.55% in
the fifth survey. The percentage of females using the Web has more than
doubled since the second survey (15.5% female, 80.3% male, 2.6% chose
not to answer). Also, the US is integrating female users into the Web
user population faster than Europe (US: 34.35% female,
Europe: 15.2% female). The increase in female users is occuring largely
in college students and K-12 educators.
When classifying users by major geographic location, we find that the
Web is slowly becoming less US dominated (US respondents: 80.6% third
survey, 76.2% fourth, 73.5% fifth). Although Canada and Mexico showed
a surge in the fourth survey (5.8% third, 10.2% fourth, 8.44% fifth),
Europe has the second highest response rate in the fifth (9.8% third,
8.4% fourth, 10.82% fifth). All other areas of the world continue
to show increases in the fifth survey including Oceania with 3.63%
of respondents and Asia with 1.81%.
Overall, the distribution of educational level has shifted slightly
towards lower levels as indicated by less advanced degrees and more
high school and some college level education. This trend towards more
and more Web users without advanced degrees has continued since the
second survey, where for example, over 13% of the users had doctoral
degrees, compared to 7% for the third survey and 4% for the fourth and
fifth. The education level of users is still high, in general, with
over 80% of respondents in the fifth survey having at least some
Primary Computing Platform
Unix, was the primary platform of most users in the second survey
(44% second, 10.4% third, 8.76% fourth, 6.67% fifth) but some flavor of
Windows has held this position since the third (29% second, 51.98% third,
61.5% fourth, 63.63% fifth). The Macintosh platform has accounted for
between 20% and 30% of the users in each survey.
Years on the Internet
There seems to be a fairly steady stream of new users to the Internet as
indicated by the
percentage of users who have been on less than twelve months: 50.2% for
the third survey, 60.3% for the fourth, and 43.14% for the fifth.
The rise in the number of new users in the fourth survey can probably
be attributed to users who have gained access through local
Nature of Internet Provider
The nature of respondents Internet provider has shown substantial
change throughout the surveys. (There was a link from Prodigy
to the Third GVU survey, so results from that survey are probably
biased for this question and are excluded from this analysis.)
The percentage of users gaining access through educational
institutions has dropped from 51.0% in the second survey, to
31.59% in the fourth, to 26.8% in the fifth. The most popular method
of gaining access in the fourth and fifth surveys is through local
Internet providers (41.64% and 48.53%, respectively) while access
from major providers accounts for only 8.1% in the fourth and 9.24%
in the fifth.
Willingness of Users to Pay for Access
One of the most stable characteristics of the earlier surveys has been
that one of five users stated outright that they would not pay for
access to WWW sites. This number has increased from 22.6% in the
third survey, to 31.8% in the fourth, to an amazing 64.95% in the
fifth. This is indeed alarming for those who wish to apply a
subscription business model to the Web. This may also very well
reflect the perceived value of the material and resources currently
available on the Web by its users. It may also be related to the fact
that 57.64% of the users in the fifth survey are paying for their own
Internet access. For those who were willing to pay, the largest
percentage (12.06%) favored a subscription model.
Measuring and describing the Web population has turned out to be an
interesting and challenging task. A primary goal of ours has always
been to provide quality data, with the limitations clearly defined, at
make it available to support a variety of research agendas within the
Web community. We feel that through our technology and methodology,
we have been able to reach this goal. We hope that as more
researchers enter this field, new ideas and collaborations will
continue to raise the quality of the data being collected.
Rule based adaptive questioning and enforced completion were
implemented in January 1994 by John Mallery for an email
based survey of White House document readers. (See Roger Hurwitz and John Mallery, Of Public Cyberspace: A Survey of Users and
Distributors of Electronic White House Documents,
.) It was at Mallery's suggestion at the Second World Wide Web Conference
that these features were incorporated into the GVU survey.
Alao, F. (1994). Pilot Study of Network Surveying Techniques. (manuscript
Catledge, L. and Pitkow, J. (1995). Characterizing Browsing Strategies in
the World-Wide Web Journal of Computer Networks and ISDN systems,
Vol. 27, no. 6.
FIND/SVP. (1995). The American Internet Users Survey.
Fowler, F. (1993). Survey Research Methods, Second Edition. SAGE
Publications, Newbury Park.
Nielsen Media Research/CommerceNet. (1995) The CommerceNet Nielsen Internet
Demographics Survey. http://www.nielsenmedia.com/
O'Reilly Research. (1995). Defining the Internet Opportunity.
Pitkow, J. and Recker, M. (1994). Results from the First World-Wide Web
Survey. Journal of Computer Networks and ISDN systems, Vol. 27, no.
Pitkow, J. and Recker, M. (1995). Using the Web as a Survey Tool: Results
from the Second World-Wide Web User Survey. Journal of Computer Networks
and ISDN systems, Vol. 27, no. 6.
Pitkow, J. and Kehoe, C. (1995) Results from the Third WWW User Survey,
The World Wide Web Journal, Vol. 1, no. 1
Georgia Tech's Graphics, Visualization, & Usability (GVU) Center
operates the surveys as a public service as part of its commitment towards
the Web and Internet communities.
This material is based upon work supported under a National Science
Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Thanks to all members of the GVU,
its director Dr. Jim Foley, and staff for their support and help. Special
thanks extend to Kipp Jones, Dan Forsyth, Dave Leonard, and Randy Carpenter
and the entire Computer Network Services staff for their technical support
and Sun Microsystems for their generous donation of equipment.
JAMES PITKOW received his B.A. in Computer Science Applications in
Psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1993. He is a
Graphics, Visualization, & Usability (GVU) Center graduate student in
the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. His research
interests include event analysis, user modeling, adaptive interfaces, and
COLLEEN KEHOE received her B.S. in Computer Science from Stevens Institute
of Technology in Hoboken, NJ in 1994. She is currently a Ph.D. student in
the Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center of the College of
Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her current interests
include educational technology, visualization, cognitive science and