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The Googlification of Search

Thursday, March 19th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

Google’s clean home page, combined with the simple search box, has made it easy to look up something online.  Indeed, using Google may just be too easy.

Google uses keyword search.  The concept sounds simple.  Type a few words into a search box and out come the answers.  Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple and it doesn’t really work that way.

Search is a 50-50 proposition.  Perhaps 50% of the time, you will get what appear to be meaningful results from such a search.  The other 50% of the time, you will get rubbish. If you’re lucky that is.

Why does this only work sometimes?  This is because there are two types of searchers, or more accurately, two types of searches.  One is keyword search, the second is category, or taxonomy, search.

It is possible to get incredibly precise search results with keyword search.  Indeed, there is no question that keyword search is a powerful search function.  Being able to enter any word, term, or phrase allows for great precision in some situations – and can result in an inability to find useful information in many others.

However, the use of a taxonomy, or categories, in search, allows the knowledge worker to follow a path that will both provide guidance and limit the number of extraneous search results returned.  Using a taxonomy can improve search recall and precision due to the following factors:

1.)    In keyword search, users simply do not construct their search terms to garner the best results.
2.)    Users also do not use enough keywords to narrow down the search.
3.)    Google’s search results reflect Google’s view of the importance of a Web page as determined by the company’s PageRank technology, which looks at the number of high-quality Web sites that link to a particular page.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the first pages in the search results have the best content but only that they are the most popular.
4.)    Web site owners can manipulate Google and other search engine results through search engine optimization (SEO).  There is an entire industry built around this service and the use of SEO can dramatically impact the positioning of a Web site on the results page.

Unfortunately, in part thanks to Google’s ubiquity as well as its perceived ease of use, the concept of search to most people seems to equal keyword search.  As more and more Web sites and publications (the New York Times being one prominent example) move to a Google search platform, the ability to find relevant information may be compromised.

In the case of the New York Times, much of the functionality previously available disappeared when the Times deployed Google Custom Search.  Only those visitors who know to click on “advanced search” can specify a date range and whether they want to search by relevancy, newest first, or oldest first, although even the “advanced” search experience is still lacking compared to the Times’ earlier system.  Thanks to the Googlification of search, however, most visitors only access the search box, and their ability to find the answers they are seeking is hobbled by the system’s limitations.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.