Older set is beginning to gain ground on Web

Gains: Americans over 65 are becoming more frequent users of the Internet, even if sites are often difficult to navigate.

December 07, 2003|By CBS MARKETWATCH

SAN FRANCISCO - Retired Americans are fast gaining ground on their kids when it comes to Internet use, but companies have far to go to make their Web sites suited to the needs of older people.

The online presence of Americans 65 and older jumped 25 percent this year, to a total of nearly 10 million surfers, while 55- to 64-year-olds raised their numbers by 15 percent, to nearly 16 million, according to a new study by Nielsen//NetRatings, a market research firm.

"This segment of the population is becoming much more comfortable with the medium," said Charles Buchwalter, vice president of analytics at Niel- sen//NetRatings.

Women led the charge, with those 65 and older increasing their Internet presence by 30 percent, to 4.6 million, while men's use increased by 20 percent, to about 5 million, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

Overall, 35- to 49-year-olds continue to maintain the largest online presence at almost 40 million, followed by those 25 to 34, at 21 million. Those numbers represent increases of 1 percent and 3 percent year over year, respectively.

Still, once they're connected, wired seniors are more likely to go online daily, with 69 percent of those 65 and older doing so, compared with 56 percent of all Internet users, according to a study to be released soon by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

But many companies' sites fail to reflect older Americans' increasing use of the Internet.

Web sites are twice as difficult to use for Americans over 65 vs. those ages 18 to 55, according to a study last year by Nielsen Norman Group, a consulting firm based in Fremont, Calif., that focuses on Web site usability.

For instance, the 65-and-older group's success rate for completing assigned tasks, such as fact-finding, buying a product and finding information, was about 53 percent, compared with a 78 percent success rate for younger users. Also, older users made almost five errors per task, compared with less than one for the younger group, according to the study.

A variety of limitations contribute to the problem, from small type sizes and a lack of contrast - such as blue type on black background - that make reading difficult to small or short links and rolling pull-down menus that are difficult for people with less steady hands to navigate with a mouse.

Also, links that don't change color after being clicked make site navigation a potential problem, as users are more likely to be unsure whether they've been to that page before, according to the study.

To address the issue of Web site usability, AARP is holding a series of conferences to study possible solutions. "A lot of sites are designed for other designers, a lot are designed for kids," said Mark Carpenter, AARP's director of Web strategy.

AARP, a consumer association for those 50 and older, is telling companies "you have to connect with these older Americans. You have to adjust the experience to service them better, so they can interact with you," Carpenter said.

Some companies are taking notice: Fidelity Investments, for instance, conducts usability tests with seniors.

Fidelity and other companies who do the same thing are recognizing the market that awaits them, said Susannah Fox, research director at the Pew Internet Project. "Those seniors who are online are very affluent, and financial information is really important to them. Fidelity is grabbing that market by making sure their Web sites are very usable."

As a former Web site designer, Fox would often test her sites through her 90-year-old grandmother, an active online user. "She has arthritis, it's hard for her to grip the mouse. You need to have navigation that is not only easy to read but also something that someone with a slightly shaky hand can navigate," Fox said. "These tiny navigation menus that you can't quite tell what your mouse is clicking on, it's really hard."

Still, a hefty portion of those 65-plus will likely never surf: 56 percent said they would never go online, according to a survey in 2001 by the Pew Internet Project.

"Many millions more seniors are online now than they were a few years ago, but there's probably going to be a saturation point of seniors who are willing to go online," Fox said.

But over time, the baby boomers will change that. "I call it the silver tsunami. The current crop of 50- to 64-year-olds is really wired," Fox said. "They're very likely to have Internet access and they're very likely to use it for all sorts of things in their lives," including banking, shopping and e-mail.

"They're even dabbling with downloading and instant messaging. We consistently found that 50- to 64-year-olds were downloading music. It's a really wired group and they are just as passionate as younger groups," she said.

Among Americans 65 and older, e-mail remains the main activity: 93 percent of wired seniors use e-mail, while 58 percent go online for hobby information, 55 percent read news online, 53 percent search for health and medical information, 53 percent browse for fun and 53 percent check the weather, according to the Pew Internet Project study.

"It's really about e-mail - and pictures," said the AARP's Carpenter. "Their children have digital cameras and they're posting pictures of their kids. The grandparents are saying we need to get online to be a part of this. They want to get into the family loop. They know that everybody else is communicating with e-mail and instant messaging. They want to be part of it. They don't want to be left out."

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