[Paleopsych] NYT: Search Engines Build a Better Mousetrap
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Technology > Circuits > Search Engines Build a Better Mousetrap
March 10, 2005
By TIM GNATEK
GOOGLE has so firmly staked out its place as the Internet
search-engine leader that it has even earned a place as a verb in the
Paradoxically, because of its very popularity, there may be no better
time to try something different.
Google's success has forced competitors like Yahoo, MSN Search and
Ask Jeeves to hustle with releasing new product features, search
controls and improved behind-the-scenes programming. The resulting
bonanza of tools brings more search capabilities, presented more
intuitively than the Web has ever seen.
But despite the advances, it may be users' search habits that present
the biggest barrier to improving the search experience.
The pressure to produce isn't just coming from Google. In April 2003,
Ask Jeeves (ask.com) added "Smart Search" to its engine, which tops
search results for definitive queries like "Who is George Washington?"
with answers - like an encyclopedia citation and a photograph - in
addition to Web links.
That same month, Yahoo provided shortcuts to its own topic pages on
popular subjects. The top result for "weather in New York," for
instance, leads to Yahoo's New York City weather page, with current
conditions and a five-day outlook.
Associating database content with queries caught on. AOL Search now
provides information from partners' content and its own; these
"snapshots" in fields like entertainment, sports and shopping link to
editor-selected information from publications within the Time Warner
media universe, including Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.
Likewise, MSN Search returns links to information from its own
specialized databases, like MSN Music, msnbc.com and Microsoft's
"Having the trusted data, what we know is a right answer, and not
asking them to trawl around, that's a huge advantage for the user,"
said Ramez Naam, MSN Search's group program manager.
Ask Jeeves will introduce technology this spring that will further the
question-and-answer abilities of its engine. The new feature, Direct
Answers From Search, will search across the entire Web, rather than
simply from its own database, to find answers to natural-language
queries (that is, those phrased as questions rather than mere search
"This allows us to answer far more questions than would be possible
using editors or structured databases," said Jim Lanzone, the
company's senior vice president for search properties. "When you're
diving into structured databases, you're limited in your coverage. We
want to harvest the power of the 2.5 billion English-language
documents in our index, to more broadly answer people's keywords and
In comparison, natural-language queries performed with other engines
not matching specialized content yield a list of links closely
associated with the phrase - with more consideration for popularity
than accuracy. For example, searching for "Who invented the Internet?"
on Google, Yahoo and MSN yields a top result exonerating Al Gore,
rather than crediting computer scientists like J. C. R. Licklider.
Other Google rivals are focusing their improvements on offerings that
try to bring simplicity and relevance to the search experience.
Microsoft's updated MSN Search tries to make searching easier by
complementing Boolean terms like "and," "or" and "not" with slide
controls (under "results ranking" in Search Builder) that can be
adjusted to determine how broadly or narrowly to search. In addition,
a "NearMe" button can return results based on proximity to your
location; the company says about a quarter of all searches make
reference to geographic information.
"You're going to see a lot of work in that area," said Oshoma Momoh,
the general manager for program management at MSN Search. "If you're
querying a news item, we'll show it to you. Or answers from real
people. If we can guess that a person is shopping, maybe we can give
you a few simple tools that might help you with that task, rather than
guessing, 'Do I click on this?' "
Also of recent note, Amazon's A9 search engine builds on the
ability to search by supplementing Web data with its own information.
For example, the A9 Yellow Pages service, introduced in late January,
not only searches for and provides directions to local businesses, but
with the "Block View" feature actually displays a photo of the
business in the context of its neighborhood, with millions of images
up and down the streets of a dozen cities including New York, Atlanta,
San Francisco and Seattle.
"This is more than the hidden Web; it didn't even exist before," A9's
chief executive, Udi Manber, said.
All of the search functions appear as tabs on the side of the page,
which can be clicked on or off to suit the search at hand. A movie tab
displays movie results related to keyword searches or can hide the Web
search altogether, making for a visual searching experience unlike any
Google itself, of course, has been a major innovator, with features
like Google Video, which provides searchable transcripts to television
programs, and Google Maps, which offers the kind of dynamic, easily
navigable charts once reserved for dedicated map programs. Its release
of Gmail last year led the field in offering one gigabyte of e-mail
storage and encouraged other Web-based mail services to supersize
their mailboxes as well.
John Battelle, who maintains a Web log about search technology
(Searchblog, at battellemedia.com), said innovations like "Block
View" showed how dynamically the search companies were taking
advantage of new technologies - and new economies.
"In 1997 you would have had to spend tens of billions, and it wouldn't
have made any sense," Mr. Battelle said. "Now, you can strap a camera
and G.P.S. on a computer and drive down the street taking pictures.
It's a neat idea, and it didn't cost the farm to try. Now imagine that
across the whole Web - that's what's happening."
The continuing efforts to improve the search experience are likely to
focus on more readily anticipating just what the user is looking for -
no more, no less - and making the results easier to navigate.
"The top frustrations among searchers are that the results aren't
comprehensive enough: the results were difficult to sort through, and,
at times, irrelevant," said Dr. Bonny Brown, director of research at
Keynote Systems, which tracks Web site performance.
"Any time a site thinks for customers, people always appreciate that,"
Dr. Brown said. "A site that can work with the reality and the
psychology of humans, that is really how you're going to please
According to another recent report on search conducted by the Pew
Internet and American Life Project, it is human behavior that may need
to change most before the average Internet user can take advantage of
all that search has to offer.
Dr. Deborah Fallows, who wrote the Pew report, feels that search can
improve across the board when the majority of search users start to
pose the kinds of refined queries that services expect.
To make her point, Dr. Fallows pointed to the most popular search
terms: keywords like "Paris Hilton," "poker" and "taxes," which appear
in the top 10 searches at Lycos. What she feels will begin to improve
search across the board is a greater concentration on changing the
habits of this majority of search users. "They always get an answer
because they aren't asking very hard questions," she said.
"What is remarkable in the data is that two-thirds of Internet users
are quite naïve and clueless about what they're doing with search
engines," Dr. Fallows said. "While so many people use the Internet,
only a third are really working with it and using it much more in
their daily lives."
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