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Making Search More Relevant

by: Bruce Clay, June 2006

Today's search engines are amazingly apt at uncovering the depth of information buried within the billions of pages that encompass the Web. Yet, despite their prowess, today's search engines still produce irrelevant search results for many queries.

For instance, search engines are unable to provide an unbiased, accurate opinion when you want to know if a Hoover is better than an Oreck. When you search for apple, they don't know if you want information on the fruit or on the computer.

In recognition of these limitations, search engines are constantly innovating to make search more relevant. Some are providing a means to personalize your search results with shared knowledge, some are experimenting with a new and different results page, and others want to improve relevance with the human touch.

Humanizing the Machine

Algorithm-based results have dominated Web search due to the vast amount of data that must be quickly culled and delivered to billions of daily Web searchers. Early on, human-generated directories played an important role in search. Yahoo! was a directory rather than a search engine. The directory still exists, but few people use it. LookSmart and DMOZ were important directories in their hey day as well. Eventually, directories lost their luster because the number of pages on the Web was increasing exponentially and only machines could index information fast enough.

However, Yahoo! plans to put the human touch back in its search results. It is now in the process of combining human advice with machine automation in order to provide its audience with more relevant results. Yahoo! has millions of human suggestions in its Yahoo! Answers database that can be used to complement the computer-generated features of its main search engine. Yahoo! wants to make search better by allowing users to tap into the collective knowledge of other people.

New Age Search Results

Search engines have presented searchers with the same ten-link, machine-generated search results pages since their creation, but maybe that is about to change. For example, Snap is a new search engine for broadband users, and it hopes to make search faster and more relevant by providing a visual representation of Web sites on its search engine results page (SERP).

The SERP features the usual link description on the left half of the page with a corresponding partial screen shot of the Web site on the right. You can scroll up and down using your computer's up and down arrow keys in a manner similar to menu navigation on a TV remote. The beauty for advertisers is that users can view their landing page before the click. You get branding on the SERP even without a click.

Another new feature in the SERPs is that Snap intermingles organic and paid links instead of separating them as most search engines do. The "sponsored link" label is in orange text. This is great for advertisers but not so good for users who can have trouble differentiating between paid and organic search engine results.

Personalizing Search Results

Yahoo! MyWeb gives users a means for sharing their knowledge with friends and family. To address some of the limits of today's search engines, Yahoo! released a beta version of MyWeb for testing with a limited number of users. This complements Web search by enabling users to search the knowledge and expertise of their friends and community in addition to the Web.

Here's how it works: Users can save, tag, and share any Web page with their comments and knowledge. Others within the user's community can do the same. This results in a new search experience that combines Web search with what a user's trusted community of friends has previously tagged and shared. Users can build their community by inviting their contacts to participate via email.

Google is also exploring ways to improve search results with Google Co-op. This platform allows users to contribute their expertise to help others find information. It currently allows users to label URLs into special topic areas or categories. Right now, the categories are Destination Guides (Travel), Health, Autos, Computer & Video Games, Photo and Video Equipment, and Stereo and Home Theater. This is a little different take on the Rollyo search engine concept or Yahoo!'s MyWeb, but along the same lines.

Users can also create subscribed links with Co-op. Subscribed links enable information and product providers to submit their site for inclusion in Google's special features. This search feature works like a vertical search engine within Google that permits narrow searches on specific topics. For instance, a provider like Search Engine Watch could create a subscribed link for inclusion in the database. Users can subscribe to that link if they frequently seek information on search engine topics. When searching, they will get more relevant links than they would find on Google's main search page. The subscribed links with heavy subscribers will remain in the database.

Searching the web becomes more targeted if you do it by community. Or at least that's the proposition of Collarity, a new search engine launching in Summer 2006. Users are grouped with other like-minded individuals, promoting not just an individual view of the web, but a social understanding as well. Join the technology community and the search engine knows that apple probably means the company and not the fruit. By knowing the searcher's interests and communities, results can be refined to the most relevant results. This increases satisfaction and better qualified visitors.

Will Users Bite?

It remains to be seen if users will adopt these new strategies. Of course, everyone wants more relevant results. But people are creatures of habit, and it's hard to shake the tried and true, even when new ways of searching can be more efficient.