Search Engines Don’t Understand You

    October 7, 2005

Heh, while I was stuck in traffic on the way home tonight my brother called. We had one of our usual heated conversations — this time about search engines (he had read my post about PLAYing with search and thought I was nuts for wanting search engines to display stock quotes for terms like PETS, PLAY, etc).

Search Engines Don't Understand You
Search Engine Understanding Making You Blue?

Editor’s Note:  How can we make search engines understand the nature of our queries better? Will the engines ever be in tune with users enough to understand what a searcher is looking for when they conduct a search? Discuss at WebProWorld.

He thought I was wrong. I thought he was wrong. That’s sorta how it is in the Scoble household (we’ve been like that ever since we were little kids). But, he blogged the conversation about what search engines should do over on his ComputerWorld blog.

I came up with something that looks like convinced him to come over to my side, though: that we need search engines that understand the role you are in when you’re searching.

For instance, let’s say you get interested in buying an HDTV (like I am). So you go to the search engines. Here, I’ll save you the time. Here’s Google for HDTV, here’s Yahoo, here’s MSN, here’s Ask Jeeves.

These resultsets are TOTALLY UNSATISFYING. Here’s why. I already know what HDTV is. I saw it the other night at Chris Pirillo’s house. So, now I know what it is, I know I want one.

But the engine doesn’t ask me what role I’m in. None of them do. We need a new search engine that understand that different people will come to an engine seeking different kinds of things. Some who are looking for HDTV probably are writing reports and need to know how it works. Some are probably wondering about the HD DVD vs. BlueRay debate. Some might have just heard it’s the hottest thing and are wondering what it is.

But I’m in a different role. I want to buy one.

So, let’s just focus in on Google since that’s the hot search engine of the moment. First link: an introduction. I don’t need that. I already had an introduction. Second link: how HDTV works. I don’t care. Next. Third link: an info site about stations and some product comparisons. Hmmm, maybe useful later, but I’m looking for something else right now. Fourth link: Huh? I’m not ready to buy yet. I wanna know what’s available. It predicted I was in a different role. Fifth link: a magazine site. OK, it’s clear the search engine isn’t going to give me what I want, so I’ll probably go off and read that site for an hour and come back. Sixth link: an ATI card? I’ll have to put that on my gift list too. Seventh link: HDTV Buyer site. News and info. Another site I’ll have to go and check out later. And on and on it goes.

What WAS I looking for? When you first get interested in something, what’s the first thing you need to know? All the choices that are available, damn it!

Where’s the link to “manufacturers of HDTV?” Sony. Toshiba. Dell. Gateway. Samsung. Panasonic. So on. They aren’t there (well, except for the ads — hey, do search engines have an economic disincentive to keep you in the wrong role so you’ll click on the ads? Hmmmm.).

So, what COULD the engine do? Well, first of all, if you could watch, say, millions of users, you’d be able to see that a lot of people visit the manufacturers sites and you’d be able to see that a lot of people go to a few pages on those sites with the words “HDTV.” You’d be able to build a model of those sites, and be able to, if you invested the dev time and the processor power, to bring back something at the top of the page that had something like: see all the major manufacturers of HDTV sets.

We know this can be done. Why? Cause Google did it for Seattle Hotels. Here’s the Google result for Seattle Hotels. They make a nice little list of all the hotels available and even give you one of those Google Maps. MSN Search has the exact same thing. Yahoo goes even further. They have pictures and ratings!!

So, why can’t they do this for HDTVs? Of course they can. It just hasn’t gotten onto the dev list of any of the major engines yet. Yet.

Oh, Yahoo Shopping has something like this but they screw it all up. Again, I’m not in the role of buying yet. I’m in the role of LOOKING. So, why can’t I get a list like this one on Yahoo Shopping, but with features, reviews, AND LINKS TO THE MANUFACTURER’S OWN SITE????

Not to mention that if you search for HDTVs (plural) on Yahoo you get a sports cafe. Huh?

Google doesn’t have that kind of noise. Neither does MSN.

Building good search engines is hard.

Believe it or not, but folks from all three of the big search companies are watching here (particularly my coworkers at MSN).

What would you like to see them do differently?

Oh, Ask Jeeves and Clusty gets really close with the bar along the right side (here’s a search on Ask Jeeves for HDTVs and the same search on Clusty). If they had a list of manufacturer’s of HDTVs there, they would have nailed it.

One more ‘oh’: I can just hear some of you saying “why didn’t you search on ‘HDTV manufacturers’?” OK, smartypants. Go do the search for that and tell me, did you find Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, JVC, Samsung, Gateway, Dell, or other manufacturers? I did that search on all three of the major engines and didn’t.

Hey, everyone who thinks this search thing is done and doesn’t need more work is fooling themselves. It’s looking a lot like 1997 when everyone thought search was done.

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

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