My monthly column at Search Engine Land, in case you missed it: At the most recent Search Insider Summit, Aaron Goldman moderated a terrific panel titled “The Perfect Search Engine.” Panelists evaluated how the perfect search engine (“PSE”) should take information (voice, text, other signals), how it should display that information, and what factors should carry the most weight in ranking results. The discussion was great, but chopping up the issue into facets missed the broader implications of PSE. So, I thought I’d provide a prescription of my own and how such changes could impact paid advertising. Let’s start from first principles and address the question: “What do users want from a search engine?” The most concise answer might be: we want the engine to provide results that match our intent. When I search for “pictures of Abraham Lincoln” I want the results to be images of Abraham Lincoln, not websites that have those images. If I search for “Newton’s gravitational constant” I’d like PSE to give me the number, not websites where I might find that information. If I search for Walmart why not take me to their website directly, or perhaps to a map if I’m searching on a mobile device? But herein lies the rub: sometimes the user’s intent is obvious, sometimes, as with that last example, it’s somewhat unclear, and other times it is utterly ambiguous. Google and Bing try to guess based on the behavior of other users who conducted similar searches, based on the browser’s past activity, based on geography, and a host of other factors. The engines have done an amazing job of “organizing the world’s information” as the Google folks describe it, and the intent matching continues to improve, but we're still pretty far from understanding exactly what Susy wants this time when she searches for "Golf". PSE will not be able to read user’s minds either – at least, not in my lifetime – but, until we get to clairvoyance the next best notion might be: how quickly can PSE return results that match the user's real intent? In many circumstances, the fastest way to get comprehensive results is to ask follow up questions. PSE should recognize degrees of ambiguity and respond with:
- Exactly what I ask for when the intent is clear,
- A range of potential options (universal search) when it’s less clear, and
- Appropriate follow up questions when the answers will get the user what they want quicker than they will get it from an array of widely disparate choices.
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