Search Companies Can Thrive If they Understand the Users Emotional Experience— Maru Group

By Andrew Hawn, Managing Director, Technology & Tommy Stinson, Managing Director, Qualitative Insights

In an age where the Internet is simply an indispensable part of life, the use of a search engine is foundational. It is the way in which we find takeout food, restaurants, household furnishings, fashion — and yes even friends and lovers. In short, search engines are the machine that powers our modern world. We’ve assessed how people feel about search: we’d note that every search is a brand experience which generates an emotional response that needs to be understood by search companies looking to cement brand relationships with their users.

To look deeper into this quickly changing space for consumers, we conducted primary and secondary research using our proprietary software, Maru/HUB. This gives us unique understanding and insight of both the rational and emotional needs of users when it comes to search. Through Implicit Association Testing, qualitative consumer interviews, and conversations with thought leaders, we’ve found emotional white space for search providers to target and drive themselves forwards.

This is key at a time when new and emerging companies like Neeva, Ecosia,, DuckDuckGo, and Mojeek have fresh investment. Growing ecosystems like Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Pinterest, and Yelp are leveraging their unique and massive data sets to deliver deeper levels of personalization, context and content to the search experience than ever before. So, whilst Google still maintains control over the vast majority (more than two-thirds) of the search market, antitrust scrutiny and new efforts from startups and large competitors is sparking innovation in the search space.

Search engines provoke strong emotions from their users

This Say-Do gap in search expectations is one of the reasons that competitors to Google’s dominance are currently emerging to target new opportunities. Significant startup funding is flowing to new search engines and search services focused on things like search privacy, contextual relevancy, deeper personalization, and unbiased accuracy of search results.

Search engines succeed when they deliver the trinity of Context, Content, and Intelligence

As the ability to search across more devices, services and platforms has expanded, so have our expectations for more meaningful and emotional results. Our research found that the search experience is driven by three key considerations: Context, Content, and Intelligence.

In our HUB based surveys with consumers and interviews with experts, the dynamic and inter-related nature of these three drivers was clear. Today’s mobile focused and context driven search platforms can now better recognize the background and situation of a user’s search behavior and quickly (even pre-emptively) meet user expectations.

When this happens well, a user’s emotional experience is positive:

“What tends to spark my desire to use a search engine is because I want to explore something I haven’t done before or push my boundaries or find experiences I haven’t done before. Just like getting dim sum and soup dumplings in the middle-of-nowhere Queens”- Focus Group Respondent

When expectations are not met credibly, the emotional experience is even more strongly negative.

“I find that’s a slippery slope at this point in time where everyone is very concerned with their privacy when using search engines.” — Focus Group Respondent

And of course, this response may not be the intention of the UX design by the Enterprise. Many product managers and strategy leads are trying to find a happy medium between the surprise and delight of pre-emptive gratification and overreaching.

We do a lot of work around modeling intent detection, modeling working through predictive conversations. We’re trying to teach you how to use us, we’re trying to teach you how to tell us what you need, then we’re confirming that we understood.” — Senior Director of Product, Global Media Company

When context is misunderstood this creates disconnect between the engine and the user

In some behaviors, strict facts are needed (a search about medical information or directions to somewhere). In others, the desired experience involves more System 1 emotional responses, such as talking to Alexa just to see what she’ll say or expecting an app to know what you mean vs. what you might have actually said.

When the context isn’t correctly understood, there’s a disconnect and the platform hits the wrong spot on the continuum between accuracy and emotionality. In conversations with both consumers and experts, it was clear that providers must get better at understanding the scope of users’ needs in the moment.

“It’s kind of like the difference of looking on eBay versus Craigslist versus Amazon if you’re looking for products. Amazon you kind of know you’re going to find it eventually, you’ve just got to keep poking around. eBay it’s sort of like a scavenger hunt. Craigslist is like — who knows what’s going to happen there? So I think you make different emotional investments based on what you expect of the brand and that service itself.”- Senior Director of Product, Global Media Company

More personal and relevant results build connection with search

The process of tagging content, matching it to search terms, and discerning context is an iterative one.

As data grows and devices continually integrate and communicate with each other, an effective search experience will require that platforms continue to get smarter while at the same time become easier and more trusted.

The search engine plays a role in the delivery of this total experience — the ambition as the connector or facilitator is to harvest some of this experience goodwill.

And content must be tagged, trusted, and identified effectively so that the right search result can be served in the right emotional moment with the right tone.

“I want to see more trust, more facts and to some degree more kindness on the internet, those three values are the cornerstones for us to create a new search engine that is more private, more trusted and more convenient in some ways.” Richard Socher, CEO of

Search engines show Intelligence by more openly collaborating with users in the process of retrievable and relevant results

Platforms must catalog, analyze, and tag the content such that the engines recognize that it’s the appropriate “answer” to a search query. For the experts we interviewed, this is a core tension for search platforms. When the page rank delivers what is seen as the wrong content, the emotional experience is downgraded.

“What I’m sad about is that all that information could be mined, but today it actually isn’t accessible to users. If it were, users could more easily learn more about their own behaviors over time… I think that in the future what will happen is this closing the loop and making this data more accessible about their own searches to the users so that they can then improve their own behavior, learn about their behavior in order to be better for the future.” — Professor of Library Science Information

Local information is clearly an increasingly important “torture test” of the efficacy of a search engine. In our Implicit Association Testing with users, when it came to seeking “Local Information” a full 88% of respondents agreed that Google was associated with local search (vs. nearly half that total for Apple). Yet only 53% felt that Google implicitly offered good local information.

It is clear that users are more sensitive and savvier to tone and relevance than ever before. Our research also shows that the negative experience can be quite severe — especially when the information needed is factual and needed for practical considerations.

“The search companies need to hire programmers with high EQ so they can recognize nuance in the query.” — Product Manager, The Audio Network

But successfully matching content to the need isn’t just about tagging and presenting data. From our conversations with consumers and experts, a balance of facts with emotional connection, combined with respect for the searcher’s emotional state, is now a baseline expectation.

The search engine trade off: a “free service” that has privacy costs

This is the final tension: how users get brought into that process. Some experts we met are calling on platforms to be more transparent with the nature and scope of the user data they have in order to collaboratively improve with users’ direct input.

As they obtain more and more data, platforms may begin evaluating the ethical and business implications of partnering with users to discuss data more transparently in order to improve both the emotional experience and the practical experience of information retrieval.

In Implicit Association Testing of Apple and Google mobile platforms related to the thorny issue of trust and privacy in search, we found that while 54% of those we surveyed agreed that Apple was associated with “privacy”, only 35% implicitly felt that way when it related to search (after all, they use Google results). So, while Apple is saying the right things in messaging that they are all about “Privacy”, not all users are implicitly, emotionally getting that message.

“Duck Duck Go I use to get a different perspective maybe, and it’s not as bought and paid for as Google is.” — Focus Group Participant

Moment of opportunity

The search engine is fundamental to modern life.

As a consequence, the performance and user relationship with the provider is rich with emotion. There are gaps where users are feeling underserved.

We believe that there are opportunities for all providers to refine their UX approach and delivery through the lens of the user’s strong emotions.

Originally published at on March 18, 2021.

Maru helps its clients make informed decisions in real-time by combining proprietorial software, deep industry experience, and unique IP in system 1 apps.

Maru helps its clients make informed decisions in real-time by combining proprietorial software, deep industry experience, and unique IP in system 1 apps.