Behavioral Data vs. Online Surveys | How Good is a Respondent's Memory?

Do you remember the last 5 websites you visited? 

I recently attended a webinar entitled When Should We Ask, When Should We Measure? Comparing Information from Passive and Active Data Collection. During this webinar Netquest explained this market research methodology versus methodology study putting observed online behavioral data up against self-reported online survey data.

Long story short, it was no contest. It turns out people are not that great at recalling their online activities from as little as a few hours ago.

It's important not to write off online surveys based on this study, though. Online surveys are still cost-effective, offer a quick turn-around, are measurable, and gather quality data. When it comes to researching online behavior, just remember behavioral data may be a better fit. 

Keep reading to learn how the study was conducted and how exactly online survey data stacked up to data passively collected on an online device.

how good is a research respondent's memory? | Drive Research

Think you know the last 5 websites you visited? This recent market research study comparing behavioral data and online surveys say otherwise.

Background and Methodology

Using a panel of market research participants, Netquest wanted to understand how reliable self-reported online behavior was in comparison to the actual behavior. Panel respondents were sampled in Spain (n=450) and Mexico (n=405). 

The true behavior was captured through different tracking methods on online devices:

  • On desktop, participants downloaded a web browser plugin that recorded their online activities.
  • On mobile, a tracker was either integrated into the panelist application or a proxy connection was set up. To look at any differences across devices, a mix of smartphone users and desktop users participated.

The online behavior of participants was tracked for 2 months, at which point they took an online survey. Points of interest in the survey included the last 5 websites they visited, the 5 websites they visit most frequently, the 5 websites they spend the most amount of time, and usage of social media. Answers were directly compared to actual behavioral data to see how well respondents recalled their behavior.

It is also worth noting that the questions asking respondents to list the domain name of websites they visited were unaided. Similar to unaided awareness questions, this means that the respondent was forced to enter an answer from memory rather than select one from a list. 


You are probably wondering how big the gap was between what respondents believed they did versus what they actually did. The findings may surprise you.

Less than 10% of all participants could correctly remember the domain name of the last website that they visited. Yikes. This was even worse among smartphone users, only 5% of whom could recall their last website visit.

Looking at the data another way, a majority of survey respondents could not even remember one domain name of the last 5 in their history. Smartphone users again here struggled more with at least two-thirds failing to remember a single website. Perfect recall was also absent, as no respondent was able to name all 5 of the last domains they visited.

Recall for time of use on websites was also poor. Desktop users did perform better than smartphone users, however. There was little difference in those asking to remember time of use from 1 week ago and 2 months ago. Similarly, the frequency of use was also reflective of memory struggles. At least two-fifths of respondents could not accurately recall how often the visited their last 5 websites.

Lastly, respondents had difficulties when trying to recall frequency of use for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Over 3 in 5 respondents using a browser for social media missed the mark. Recall was better for those using the app, except for the LinkedIn app, which over 4 in 5 users could not remember their frequency of use.

Key Takeaways 

Soaking in all the insights from the study leads to one main conclusion: website visitors just don't have a strong memory of their online activities. Participants failed to demonstrate precision across recently visited websites, time of use, and frequency of use.

Memory of online behaviors should be expected to worsen as time passes from the initial website visit. The exception seems to be recalling time of use, which was equally poor among those assessing behavior from 1 week ago versus 2 months ago.

In general, recall of online behavior is more accurate on desktop versus mobile. This is likely due to the multi-tasking nature of smartphone usage and more frequent sessions.

While online behavioral data is great for directly researching participants, it can also be used to accurately target for qualitative recruiting. For example, if there is a study that needs participants who have shopped at a online retailer in the past week, behavioral data can give you a list of recruits instantly. Our market research company leverages social media platform data to reach people based on location, age, income, and even interests.

It is hard to argue with data straight from the source. That's why observed online data is one of the best options for researching online behavior in terms of accuracy. Just remember that online surveys still very much have a place in market research for their efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Contact Drive Research

Drive Research is a market research company located in Syracuse, NY. Our experts have the know-how and partners to utilize online behavioral data for your next project or recruitment.

Interested in learning more about our market research services? Reach out through any of the four ways below.

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