The headline on digi.no this morning read “Search Does Not Get Better Anymore”. The background for the article was a report by Gartner, stating that technological development in search is falling behind, and that the need for federated search and conversation is not met by search technology providers today. A statement like that is meant to provoke, and it begs for a reply. Here is what I think you should know about search innovation today.
The article makes a strong argument for the importance of better enterprise search, but Eirik Rossen (author) is wrong in using Google as an example of halting search innovation. Google has one very good reason to keep the web search user experience unchanged: conventions. Brin and Page (Google founders) found a working formula in 1998, and they have practically defined search ever since. It’s wise of Google to approach search user interface innovation with caution, avoiding the risk of alienating their loyal users.
Google has instead focused most of their efforts on search relevance, constantly tuning and developing their rank model. The well-known PageRank score is just one of more than 200 factors contributing to the final rank scores, determining the placements of links on the search result page. All studies confirm the importance of being first, second or third, as this eye-tracking heat map clearly illustrates.
The search engine result page (SERP) is one of the strongest conventions in web design. We expect to see a list of page titles and descriptions, sorted descending on relevance from top to bottom. All search result visualization techniques deviating from this pattern are facing the same challenge – how to communicate relevance. Both Grokker and SearchMe fail at this point. Their novel user interfaces hide information, and obscure the relevancy ranking of the results. Is left more relevant than right? Is it different for right and left handed people, perhaps?
Search innovation happens all the time, and I would like to mention a few examples to you before I return to Google. Powerset and Freebase are very capable semantic search engines, restructuring and connecting information to facilitate knowledge exploration. Think about it as retrieving crisp facts and pieces of knowledge rather than documents containing the information sought after. And TagGalaxy and Dipity proves that novel search user interfaces can work, after all.
Google are constantly innovating, and they are trying real hard to keep you from noticing it… That was a joke, but Google are treading gently as they introduce new features on their search pages. I would like to highlight two long-term user experience innovations you should already be familiar with: universal search and personalization.
When you do a web search on Google, you will often get search results for images and news, as well. A federated search is performed behind the scenes, and the results from many sources are merged together. Universal search is sometimes called blended search, and provides instant access to various, possibly heterogeneous information sources. Clever algorithms determine when and how search results should be blended.
Google takes universal search even further by providing actionable results directly on the search page (Yahoo Search and MSN Live Search provide similar features). You can search within a specific site, book a flight, see the weather forecast, and find Paris Hilton’s height.
The goal of personalized search is to disambiguate intentions. Dolphins are mammals living in the sea, and Miami Dolphins is an American football team. Google will personalize the search result ranking whenever possible, showing different results to different people based on their web history. They are very caution about this feature, though. According to an interview with Googler Marissa Mayer, personalized ranking will only lift two results into the top 10, never replacing the number one organic result.
Quite recently, Google introduced a voting feature on the international site (in English). It means that you can now directly control the search results, highlight the web pages that are relevant to you, and block the pages that are of no interest.
Today’s search technology is quite capable of delivering federated search and search as a conversation. And there are literally hundreds of alternative and novel search engines out there, constantly pushing the barriers of convention. “Mega” technology providers are definitely in the game, both for the enterprise and the consumer market. Search innovation today happens in small increments, and Google is in many ways leading the pack.