Alex Scoble

Searching for the right sites through the noise

By Alex Scoble
October 06, 2005 11:35 PM EDT
My brother has found a problem with MSN's search service. When he enters play into the search bar, it doesn't return the stock ticker at the top of the results page. However, Google does.

I wrote in comments on his blog that he's being lazy, but from a business standpoint, he feels, and is probably correct, that that's the wrong answer. Particularly since the other search engines do give the result he wants.

Talked to him on the phone about it and we agreed that the problem is even deeper than that. Search engines, at least all the ones I've seen, don't try to understand exactly what you want.

For instance, he broke down a search user's quest to purchase a product down to 4 roles:

Gather information - Find vendors
Research - Compare vendor offerings
Look for best vendor - try to find best deal, not lowest price, but best deal from the most reputable source for the entire package the customer wants + tax + shipping
Buy - actually buy the product at the best price from the vendor the customer chose

When you go to any of the search engines and start a search for HDTVs for instance, none of them break down your search into the different roles you might take. In fact, most of the noise that comes up is typically heavily weighted in favor of the last role. The engines don't bother to ask us what we are really trying to search for and that's the problem.

Now generally, Google does a decent job of returning the proper result, but realistically it requires too much work to get there.

Most searches are one word, so the search engines either need to ask users what they really meant to ask for, figure it out based on preferences, learn what a user wants based on their previous searches, allow users to tell the engine "no, that's not what I want", or a combination of any or all of the above.

Noise does no one any good. It doesn't help retailers, it doesn't help manufacturers, nor does it help users, or companies like Google for that matter, when search engines give returns other than what the searcher intended.

And I didn't even mention when you search for a company name and have to go down through 50 other entries to find the company's web site. One issue at a time, one issue at a time.