When is a Search Tool Not a Search Engine?

    April 22, 2004

Search engines were created to give user access to the vast amounts of data located on the web. This is the equivalent of creating a pair of glasses to find a four-leaf clover in a large field: you know it’s probably in there somewhere if you look, and that it’s just sitting there waiting for you to find it; all you have to do is be in the right place, looking in the right direction, and assume the glasses are giving you the precise focus you need to find it.

Because of the almost limitless information available, surfing the net has been made both easier and harder through the use of search engines. The major problem is that there is such a vast amount of data to wade through.

Or is that the problem?

What is the Frame that Search Engines Explore Through?

Just what criteria do search engines actually use to locate your search? Most of them use a hierarchy of popularity. So, the more that people go to one site, the higher the probability that the search engine will direct new searchers to it as well – thereby creating a vicious circle and maintaining that site’s popularity.

Whole companies have sprung up to solve this problem. As a result, we are told to use certain words to increase hit probabilities – words that the search engines will pick up. I remember my web designer telling me that if I wanted to attract visitors to my site, I had to continually use the words selling’ and integrity’ three times per page. So I went to each of the main pages and found interesting (and not so interesting) ways of incorporating selling’ and integrity’ into every sentence that would accommodate them.

What does the searcher end up with? A huge range of choices that lead to a hierarchy of default choices that others have made. In other words, I end up with a high probability of either not finding what I want, or not knowing if what I want is available, or not even knowing if what I find is a correct response.

Net/net: search engines do not seek sites through the criteria that you or I need to find answers; they rummage around using the easiest available word searches that show up on the most popular sites.

Where Search Engines Go Wrong


Let’s take a simple example and follow it through. Let’s do this right now, and you’ll learn along with me what happens. I’m going to Google, and look up red shirt’ to see what types of red shirts are available to purchase. Here’s exactly what I’m getting by typing in red shirt’:

RedShirtImaging: Fast Imaging for Biologists
Red Shirt’s Guides to Netrek
TV:SCI FI Channel:Star Trek:Red Shirt Deaths
Red Shirt Society | CafePress

Nothing here tells me anything about a red shirt I might want to buy. What is Netrek anway?? Red Shirt deaths? I feel like I’m missing a huge slice of life here, when all I wanted was to buy a shirt.

On a side panel I see something about clothes:

Forty thousand stores? Is that what I want to do? Go to 40,000 sites to look for a red shirt?

In this one simple example – and I chose the words red shirt’ out of thin air, having no idea what I would find – we can see that the search engine is in no way aligned with my needs.

Let me try to be more specific and do a more refined Google search: “places to purchase a long-sleeved red shirt.”

Now I get (and I quote):

American Red Cross
Judas Iscariot – Heaven in Black Flames Black Metal CD
Fashion Forward Archives – if the bra fits.

No kidding.

Criteria VS. Information

I’ve heard it said that search engines will be successful only when they know how to read someone’s mind. Now we’re getting closer to the solution.

But wait – when we are searching solely for information, search engines will never do more than create value chains according to usage.

For a search engine to be truly successful for each user, the search engine would need to know the criteria the user is seeking.

Criteria are the norms, the conditions, the standards, through which we choose. Information in and of itself does NOT teach us HOW to make a choice – it just offers us different types of choices.

In other words, if I ended up getting different ways I could purchase a red shirt, and they were listed as boutiques, department stores, or catalogues, for example, one of the criteria I would have to choose is what type of facility I would feel comfortable purchasing from.

In the early days of the Internet, my technophobic sister needed to buy a y’ connector. She went on line, found 3 sites selling the one she needed, and all had prices within a $10 price differential. Which did she choose? Well, first she went outside to garden for a bit, to clear her mind and try to decide what her criteria were. She realized that she wouldn’t trust an unknown company unless they had more than 20 items for sale on their site. Sane? Nope. But an example of someone’s unique criterion. She went back onto the net, and looked up each of the sites again. On one site there were only 3 items listed. Off the list. The other two had 24 and 35. Both were in her range of choice. She then called them both to see if they had a good return policy in case there was a problem. One site had a machine answer the call. One site had a person pick up. Guess which one she chose?

We Make Choices Idiosyncratically

Now, did her criteria give her the best chance of getting it right? Nope. All it did was match her comfort zone. It had nothing to do with the information – it had to do with her own personal, idiosyncratic set of norms and rules and choices. Nothing even to do with the product.

We choose from our own criteria. Sometimes we end up using information as a means to define our criteria, especially when we don’t know all of the elements that we need to make sense of or manage, before we make a final decision.

So when we search the Internet for data, we must make several types of decisions:

– we have to decide what we want to walk away with;

– we have to decide what to do with the data we’ve retrieved;

– we have to know what we are willing to believe;

– we have to recognize what is believable and what is not;

– we have to understand if we’ve been exposed to all possibilities;

– we have to recognize if the material we retrieve will answer the underlying questions we’re seeking answers to.

Indeed, there is a step we have to take before we can fully utilize the data we retrieve from the net. And there is a way to do this which can be created by a different form of search engine.

Build a Brain

Since people decide from criteria, not from information, it’s necessary to build a search tool that teaches people how to understand and recognize their own criteria.

This would help people uncover their unique criteria, and know how to make their best decision. It could be melded with information if done in stages. Then they will be able to know which site to choose, and how to successfully walk away with their solution.

This search tool would offer visitors a way to help buyers facilitate their own discovery, and offer possible answers to help them actually think through all the possibilities they weren’t even aware they needed to consider.

A criteria-based tool operates differently from an information-based engine as well. It would lead the searcher through questions that would teach them each step of their criteria-alignment process, and offer responses that would bring them to their next logical answer. Each question/answer segment would lead (through an AI capability) the visitor to the next set of questions. Once the visitor had her criteria aligned, she’d be brought to the page(s) that would respond to her specific need.

This could be used on the front of large corporate sites; it could be used on the front of sites with complex data that leave the visitor unsure of where to find their answer; it could be used with any site in which a visitor would need to figure out their criteria before they’d consider their search successful – say, health-related sites, or banking sites that have a vast array of information.

Using a Different Model

Here is one possible question and set of choices that my sister might have been asked in the case with the y’ connecter. Note that the answers presented help the visitor think through their possibilities.

How would you know which company to choose?

– it would have to be a company I’m familiar with;

– I seek the lowest price;

– I want to make sure I am able to get good customer service before I choose a merchant;

– I would want to know there is a telephone number with a person at the other end;

– I would want to know that the company offered quality goods.

This is just one subset of a total of, say, 4 or 5 questioning segments that a facilitative search engine would ask, leading the visitor to thing through all available criteria that they might not have consciously thought of, but would need to be answered before they’d make a choice. Of course, the time it takes for buyers to come up with their own criteria is the length of the sales/decision cycle, so why not help them come up with it themselves rather than just throw information and choices at them?

Of course this would not be helpful for all searches. But for those people who end up walking away in exasperation because either there were too many choices to make sense of, or they were led to Netrek and Red Cross and bras, they would have an alternative.

Let’s rethink what search engines are for – to help people find information that will solve some sort of problem. Throwing information at them is not always the solution, nor does it necessarily touch the visitor’s criteria. Let’s make available an additional tool to help people find the right answers for themselves quickly and efficiently, while teaching them how to decide at the same time.

To do this we have to reconsider our own criteria as search experts:

– How would we know that designing an alternate search engine would be viable?

– What would we need to know to consider testing a new format?

– What would need to happen to make the device usable with current technology?

– At what point would we know if developing a new search tool were worth the money, time, effort?

– What would need to happen to change conventional thinking about search tools?

Who knows? Maybe we can have full access to the Internet by truly rethinking the way we search.

Should you wish to learn more about this, go to www.buyingfacilitation.com and purchase my ebook Buying Facilitation: the new way to sell that expands and influences decisions