Search Query Formation by Strategic Consumers

20 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2018

See all articles by Jia Liu

Jia Liu

Microsoft Corporation - Microsoft Research, New York City

Olivier Toubia

Columbia Business School - Marketing

Date Written: March 9, 2018


Submitting queries to search engines has become a major way in which consumers search for information and products. The massive amount of search query data available today has the potential to provide valuable information on consumer preferences. In order to unlock this potential, it is necessary to understand how consumers translate their preferences into search queries. In this paper, we argue that if consumers are strategic, then their search queries should not be a direct representation of their preferences: strategic consumers should formulate queries that are likely to retrieve the content they are searching for, rather than being merely similar to that content. We present secondary and primary evidence that is consistent with a strategic view of query formation. Using secondary field data, we illustrate the benefits for consumers from strategically formulating queries which contain only a subset of the terms they are interested in, but which are effective at retrieving other terms of interest. Our incentive-aligned lab experiment confirms that consumers have at least some ability to be strategic when formulating search queries.

Keywords: search engines, search models

Suggested Citation

Liu, Jia and Toubia, Olivier, Search Query Formation by Strategic Consumers (March 9, 2018). Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 18-30, Available at SSRN: or

Jia Liu

Microsoft Corporation - Microsoft Research, New York City ( email )

641 Avenue of Americas
New York, NY 10011
United States

Olivier Toubia (Contact Author)

Columbia Business School - Marketing ( email )

New York, NY 10027
United States

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