Battelle’s Book Makes Me Look At the Search

    October 3, 2005

I just finished reading John Battelle’s The Search. First, a disclosure. He sent me the book and even signed it.

So, I’m a bit biased to say something nice about it.

I did enjoy it. Even ignored West Wing, which was on TV. It’s a great book if you want to know what happened in the search industry (and particularly to Google). I say “happened” because it does a really great job of taking us through where the industry was earlier this year. It left me wanting, though. I wish John would have told us a bit about where he thinks search is going.

But, that’s actually an artifact of the book industry. It usually takes several months for a book to be edited and printed once it’s finished. The book I’m writing with Shel Israel, for instance, was done a month ago but won’t be on store shelves until January.

John’s last chapter is “the Perfect Search.” I don’t believe there is such a thing. Why? Well, that would mean that search engines know about stuff that was just typed into blogs right now. And, the spiders simply don’t work that fast.

So, let’s write our own search chapter addon for John’s book. Here’s Chapter 13 – Search in Context.


Search sucks. Huh? What do you mean by that?

Well, we know that most people who search will only enter one word into Google, MSN, or Yahoo.

So, let’s say you are going to New York in two weeks and need a hotel. Most people will just search on “hotel.”

Now, I can hear the geeks saying “that’s not true.” But, recently I got to spend some time in Google’s reception area. There they have projectors that let you watch a large number of searches as they are being done. And, most searches on the hour I spent in the lobby were, indeed, one or two words.

So, follow along as we think about search. Let’s just stick with Google since that’s the search leader.

Now, go to “hotel” and you’ll see what I call an intermediary at the top ( You’ll also see Hilton, Marriott, Best Western, among others.

But that’s not what you wanted. Remember, you were going to New York. So, you realize your search isn’t specific enough. So, you enter “new york hotel.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Lots of hotels. But, the first one is a hotel in Las Vegas. That’s what we call “noise.” Google can’t decide between hotels IN New York or hotels NAMED New York.

Ahh, now you are understanding the problem. Today’s search engines don’t understand the CONTEXT of your search.

But, it gets worse than that. Look at the new york hotel search page again. You’ll see hotels like Hilton, the Intercontinental, the Hyatt, and others. Great, huh? Google rocks! But, wait, what if you want to see only hotels that have free wifi?

Well, now you search on new york hotel with free wifi. Yeah, there are a bunch of hotels there, but a lot of noise too.

Oh, damn, wait a second, I also want a hotel with a good view. So I search on new york hotel with free wifi and good view. Oh, now I’m getting a lot of noise. Oh, and don’t even try finding a hotel with free wifi, good view, and great food.

Now, there are two problems happening here. First, the search isn’t figuring out the context very well. When I look for a hotel I am looking for things like whether or not the hotel is rated by AAA, whether or not it has free wifi, whether or not it has a nice view, whether or not it is near things I need to visit, whether or not it has big bathtubs (the Marriott, in some of its suites, for instance, has big jet tubs that are awesome).

In that context I want to see only hotels. No intermediaries. No reviews (well, except maybe to figure out whether the hotel has a good view or good food). Then, once I find a few hotels I’d like to compare them for price and availability. God forbid if you want to do that using a search engine. You almost always have to copy and paste search results and start keeping a spreadsheet.

At the pricing point, I want two things. 1) I want to see not just the hotel’s own site, but I want to see all the intermediaries since they often will offer better pricing. 2) I want to see reviews for both the hotels themselves and the intermediaries. Is a better place to buy a hotel night? Or Expedia? Quick, do a Google search and figure that one out.

So, what COULD search engines do? Well, first, give me some choices at the top of the page. Why couldn’t search engines ask you these questions:

1) “are you looking for hotels in New York or named New York?”
2) Are you looking for hotels with free Wifi?
3) Are you looking for hotels with great views?
4) Are you looking for hotels nearby major tourist destinations?
5) Are you looking for hotels with above average ammenities like super large bathtubs, well stocked minibars, etc.?

We could go on.

Click “yes” next to each answer. Then the search engine could bring back results that are clustered. Maybe New York Hilton will be the top result. Well, underneath that could be several other choices like “make reservation”; “find the best price”; “read reviews”; “see map of attractions within walking distance”; “call hotel with Skype”; etc.

Now, will this make search more useful, or more confusing? Well, that’s the $64 billion question, isn’t it?

So, how do we get there? Well, today search engines can track which links you are clicking on, where those links come from, the content on the page, along with about 100 other variables. Engines are changing from something that needed to be tweaked by programmers to neural networks that are actually learning from your interactions with the engines themselves.

For instance, when you searched on just “hotel” and you didn’t click any links because the results were all lame, you told the engine something. Now, let’s say 100,000 people all do the same thing? Well, the engine really knows that it isn’t doing its job. But, can the engine watch what you do next? Can it see you added a word onto your search query? Why couldn’t it sense that you found that result set more useful?

Oh, you asked your friend where she stayed last week in New York? And she IM’d you the URL? Well, search engines can’t see that. At least not today. But, if you’re at a wifi spot that’s controlled by search engines the engine could see that URL and add it to the index. It could even watch as you poke around the page.

What else are the geniuses behind search engines trying to learn about our behavior so that they could build better engines?

That’s what I was hoping to learn in Batelle’s book. I guess I’ll need to wait for “Search 3.0.” Or something like that.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in search? It certainly isn’t over. I have dozens of queries where I think all the engines suck. Can’t wait to see how the geeks figure out how to give us better searches, that’s for sure!

Oh, and is there any good way you’ve come up with to compare search engines? It’s getting harder to tell the three apart (although MSN was the only engine that didn’t put a Las Vegas hotel in the first five results for new york hotel.

Compare for yourself: new york hotel on Google; new york hotel on Yahoo; new york hotel on MSN.

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Robert Scoble is the founder of the Scobleizer blog. He works as’s Vice President of Media Development.

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