Google Instant – Can a Search Engine Predict What We Want?

On September 8th Google released a new feature for their search engine: Google instant.
If you haven’t seen it yet, there is an introduction on Youtube that is worth spending 1:41 minutes on.

Simply put, Google instant is a new way of displaying results and helping users find information faster. As you type, results will be presented in the background. In most cases it is enough to write two or three characters and the results you expect are already right in front of you.

Google instant

The Swedish site Prisjakt has been using this for years, helping the users to get a better precision in their searches.

At Google you have previously been guided by “query suggestion” i.e. you got suggestions of what others have searched for before – a function also used by other search engines such as Bing (called Type Ahead). Google instant is taking it one step further.

When looking at what the blog community has to say about the new feature it seems to split the users in two groups; you either hate it or love it.

So, what are the consequences? From an end-user perspective we will most likely stop typing if something interesting appears that draws our attention. The result?
The search results shown at the very top will generate more traffic , it will be more personalized over time and we will most probably be better at phrasing our queries better.

From an advertising perspective, this will most likely affect the way people work with search engine optimization. Some experts, like Steve Rubel, claims Google instant will make SEO irrelevant, wheas others, like Matt Cutts think it will change people behavior in a positive way over time  and explains why.

What Google is doing is something that they constantly do: change the way we consume information. So what is the next step?

CNN summarizes what the Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google says:

“The next step of search is doing this automatically. When I walk down the street, I want my smartphone to be doing searches constantly: ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ”

Schmidt said at the IFA consumer electronics event in Berlin, Germany, this week.

“This notion of autonomous search — to tell me things I didn’t know but am probably interested in — is the next great stage, in my view, of search.”

Do you agree? Can we predict what the users want from search? Is this the sort of functionality that we want to use on the web and behind the firewall?

Findability and the Google Experience

In almost every findability project we work on, users ask us why finding information on their intranet is not as easy as finding information on Google. One of my team members told me he was once asked:

”If Google can search the whole internet in less than a second, how come you can’t search our internal information which is only a few million documents?”

I don’t remember his answer but I do remember what he said he would have wanted to answer:

”Google doesn’t have to handle rigorous security. We do. Google has got millions of servers all around the world. We have got one.”

The truth is, you get the search experience you deserve. Google delivers an excellent user experience to millions of users because they have thousands of employees working hard to achieve this. So do the other players in the search market. All the search engines are continuously working on improving the user experience for the users. It is possible to achieve good things without a huge budget. But I can guarantee you that just installing any of the search platforms on the market and then doing nothing will not result in a good experience for your users. So the question is; what is your company doing to achieve good findability, a good search experience?

Jeff Carr from Earley & Associates recently published a 2 part article about this desire to duplicate the Google experience, and why it won’t succeed. I recommend that you read it. Hopefully it will not only help you meet the questions and expectations from your users; it will also help you in how you can improve the search experience for them.

Enterprise Search and why we can’t just get Google.

The Future of Information Discovery

I recently attended the third annual workshop on Human Computer Interaction and Information retrieval ( HCIR 2009) in Washington DC together with my colleague Lina. This is the first in a series of blog posts about what happened at the workshop. First up is the keynote about the Future of Information Discovery, by Ben Shneiderman.

Ben Shneiderman, professor at the University of Maryland and founding director of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory held the workshop keynote. He started off by talking about what he called the elephant in the room, Google. Because whenever you talk about search these days you have to talk about Google. Google has become the baseline for search and the system that users relate other search experiences to. Almost all of our customers’ users has in one way or another asked “why can’t our intranet be more like Google?” (Read more about expectations to Googlify the company in a previous blog post by Mickel. You can also download the slides to Ben Shneidermans keynote presentation.)

As Ben Shneiderman said, Google does actually do the job, finding facts work. However searching for information can be dangerous. Google does well on handling simple fact-finding tasks but we need better tools to handle other types of searches such as:

  • Extended fact finding tasks where the queries are often vague
  • Tasks involving exploration of availability where the requested results can be vague
  • Open ended browsing and problem analysis where there can be hidden assumptions
  • Mismatch between the users information needs and the available metadata which will require exhaustive searching.

One of the points that I appreciated the most in this keynote was that systems that support searching for information not only need to support simple known-item searches, which Google does well. They also need to support other things:

  • Helping users enrich query formulation
  • Expanding result management
  • Enable long-term effort
  • Enhance collaboration

I am especially pleased by this statement since these are some of the important issues that we are working with in our customer projects. You will also learn more about query formulation in one of our upcoming blog posts from HCIR.

Supporting these cases are important for supporting users in their information seeking tasks and, according to Shneiderman, this should also be done while enabling users to deal with specific cases of search, concerning:

  • Completeness – Do I have all the information on a specific topic? This is especially important in for example legal or medical cases.
  • Absence of information – proving non-existence of information is very difficult but needed when applying for a patent or registering a trademark.
  • Outliers – making unexpected connections between information and finding and learning new  things that you would not have expected to find.
  • Bridging – Connecting different disciplines with each other.

This is very important because when users search the goal is not the information itself. No users go to a search interface just for the fun of searching for information. They need the information for a purpose. Search therefore needs to support things such as decision-making, collaboration, innovation and societal improvement. Search will only be of true value to users when it not only searches the simple fact-finding tasks but when it helps users solve the real problems in the real world. And good tools can force people to reframe their thinking and see things in a different light. That is the kind of tools that we should be designing.