Smith Christine B.
Casting the Net: Surveying an Internet Population
At any given moment there are thousands of surveys and polls being conducted on the
web, yet surprisingly little scholarly research is reported about this new technique.
After a summary review of the comparative literature on e-mail and "snail mail" and a
more extensive review of research involving web-based methods, this article contrasts
e-mail and web-based survey techniques used in an ongoing study of the web presence provider
industry. Practical issues of web-surveying methods are highlighted, such as programming pitfalls, sample-building, and incentives.
The self-administered survey questionnaire has long been an economic alternative to
labor-intensive and expensive face-to-face and telephone interviews. With the widespread
adoption of e-mail among corporate, scholastic, and government populations, and to a somewhat
lesser extent the general computing public, dissemination of survey materials among such
populations has never been so easy or cheap. Another alternative gaining in popularity is the
fill-in-form survey which uses the hypertext markup language (HTML) and
common-gateway-interface (cgi) programming of the World Wide Web to construct, format, and
administer questionnaires to web users. This paper contrasts the two electronic survey
techniques in light of methodological issues which have arisen during a work-in-progress: an
extensive survey of the web "presence" provider industry.
At best guess, thousands of ongoing, informal polls are liberally sprinkled among millions of web pages. There are probably an equal number of marketing surveys, but results of these are closely held as proprietary information generated for paying clients. Little of the methodological information gathered from these surveys finds its way into the scholarly literature, still less into the public domain, although it is easy to spot the tantalizing nuggets of this massive proprietary research effort in press releases and sales literature. Consequently, communication researchers may be ill-informed about the advantages and liabilities of web survey methodology relative to other, more familiar techniques. Thus, the focus here is primarily on this newer method, and that is limited largely to response quantity rather than quality, although many of the researchers cited are analyzing response times and quality.
Naval Postgraduate School Monterey, CA