I just came across a Wired article today on a new search push from Microsoft, which will supposedly be named Bing. It touches on some of the issues that we were discussing in yesterday’s comment thread, in particular:
People thought online e-mail was just fine and more or less converged on the same specific set of features — until Google came along and gave people gigs of disk space, organized e-mails by conversations and let people send big attachments. Soon Yahoo and Microsoft were forced to follow. So too with search. Google appears to have created the staple recipe, but there is a clear hunger for something more. Unfortunately people may not know what that something extra is until they see it — and that’s something not even Google has been able to figure out. So what do we know about what web searchers want? Weitz gave Wired.com a look at some of what Microsoft found when it when “back to the data” — namely Live.com search results — in a bid to make a qualitative leap in search performance. The data shows rampant clicking by many on the back button, while others get desperate enough to look to the second page of results. And when that doesn’t work, the users try again, coming up with slightly different terms. That’s about half of the searches. Only a quarter of searches return a good result — meaning an answer to a question (think a stock price), a satisfying search engine result or a happy ad click.
While this is a good start, it’s still not clear to me that the interpretations of the measurements are correct. Just because someone doesn’t click something, does that mean the search was a failure? Just because someone did click something, does it mean that the search was a success? It is not to difficult to come up with reasonable and abundant, counterexamples. And it’s still not clear how to differentiate task failure from process failure.
On a slightly different note, I found the following excerpt from the article particularly interesting:
And, as it turns out, online search sessions can also be quite long — meaning that there’s not a single question and answer for a search engine to return. Instead, users engage in long research and discovery sessions, and could use some help with organizing those results, Weitz said.
That sounds right.
Think of how you would shop for the best new GPS unit and the cheapest place to buy it online. How many searches would it take? Or how about finding the best local dry cleaner for a fur coat? Or researching one’s symptoms and possible remedies.
Some way to add order to those searches would be very useful.
It sounds like there is a growing awareness of the need for exploratory search. Users do not just want to look up facts. They also want to learn, discover, synthesize, compare and generally explore an information topic.