Is exploratory search different? A comparison of information search behavior for exploratory and lookup tasks

Kumaripaba Athukorala, Dorota Głowacka, Giulio Jacucci, Antti Oulasvirta, Jilles Vreeken

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

103 Citations (Scopus)
259 Downloads (Pure)


Exploratory search is an increasingly important activity yet challenging for users. Although there exists an ample amount of research into understanding exploration, most of the major information retrieval (IR) systems do not provide tailored and adaptive support for such tasks. One reason is the lack of empirical knowledge on how to distinguish exploratory and lookup search behaviors in IR systems. The goal of this article is to investigate how to separate the 2 types of tasks in an IR system using easily measurable behaviors. In this article, we first review characteristics of exploratory search behavior. We then report on a controlled study of 6 search tasks with 3 exploratory—comparison, knowledge acquisition, planning—and 3 lookup tasks—fact-finding, navigational, question answering. The results are encouraging, showing that IR systems can distinguish the 2 search categories in the course of a search session. The most distinctive indicators that characterize exploratory search behaviors are query length, maximum scroll depth, and task completion time. However, 2 tasks are borderline and exhibit mixed characteristics. We assess the applicability of this finding by reporting on several classification experiments. Our results have valuable implications for designing tailored and adaptive IR systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2635-2651
Number of pages17
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2016
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • information needs
  • information seeking
  • search strategies


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