Last week in How Real People Use Search, Part 3 we took a look at how consumers find specific products and the implications that carries for e-commerce. This week, we show how they incorporate advice from friends – and strangers – in purchasing decisions.

I Can Buy With a Little Help from My Friends.

I was bored out of my mind at Old Navy the other day, waiting on my husband to try on some new shirts. While I was waiting outside the dressing room, a woman came out to show her husband a pair of shorts she was trying on.

“Do you think they’re too short? I feel too old to be wearing them,” she asked her husband, modeling a pair of medium length shorts that fit well.

Despite his reassurances that they were “fine,” she still looked worried. She turned to me. “What do you think?” After I reassured her that the shorts did in fact fit her well, she decided to buy them right then.

It’s funny how someone else’s opinion – even that of a complete stranger whose quality as a reviewer can be summed up as “not my husband” – can be the push to get us to buy that pair of shorts, or leave them behind in the shopping cart instead. I wondered how far does this influence of friends and peers extend into our other buying experiences?

Through our look into How Real People Use Search Engines, we endeavored to answer that question from a digital perspective. And, much like bringing your friend or spouse with you to the mall, people are looking for a little online hand-holding when they enter the world of ecommerce – a little of what we call product confirmation.

Whether they’re looking for reviews or friend recommendations depends a lot on the type of purchase.


As a reminder, our survey about how people use the internet and search engines asked respondents the following questions:

  1. If you were in the market to buy a new flat screen TV, how would you go about buying it online?
  2. You just bought a house and want a security system installed. Using the web, how would you find the best one?
  3. If you were looking for a professional to help you with your exercise routine, using the web, what would you search for?

In Question 2, which asked users to find the “best” security system, we weren’t surprised to see that more than half (53.89 percent) of respondents said they’d look for online reviews before choosing the system they’d buy. By asking them to look for the best, we hoped to prompt them to evaluate the product and search for evidence of its quality.


However, the desire for product confirmation doesn’t stop there. Even though Question 1 did not include a superlative word like “best” or “top-rated” in it, almost 36 percent of respondents still said they’d look for online reviews to help guide them before purchasing a flat screen TV.

On the other hand, flat screen TVs are an expensive purchase, but not an incredibly personal one. Despite a large chunk of respondents citing reviews in their search for a flat screen TV, very few respondents said they’d ask friends for TV recommendations (only 1.2 percent). Again, we trust the intelligence and opinions of complete strangers because of a shared connection over technology (or fashion).

This is in contrast to the 10.78 percent of respondents who would ask their friends for security system recommendations. The level of personal involvement or risk inherent in a product proportionally increases the need for confirmation. For instance, for security systems that protect your home and family, many people said they would want to get a brand name that they recognized or ask friends and neighbors for their recommendations.

“[I would] get the names of several reputable vendors from friends and family and then search them specifically online,” wrote one respondent. “I would not use a search engine for something like this.”

Personal trainers were the focus of the third question. In this instance, fewer people relied on reviews – only 11.04 percent said they would look for reviews as part of their search. However, 10.43 percent of respondents would look to friends and social media, an almost identical statistic to the security system question. Both of these products/services are more personal, and thus require a more personal touch when deciding on a purchase.

“[I would] search for trainers in my area – look at a variety of their web pages to get a general feel for the person and the services they offer, Would also use social media to maybe ask for people’s experiences – because that would matter to me.”

So the next time you’re thinking about buying that shirt but can’t decide, realize you’re not alone. In fact, realize you shouldn’t be alone in that Old Navy. Bring a friend next time, and take advantage of the benefits of product confirmation. And get an Orange Julius while you’re at it – you deserve some refreshment.


Christa Garcia oversees operations at 352 and has been a leader in media-related jobs throughout her career, even back to the ol' college newspaper days. She is a fan of good books, good beer and SEC football.