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The Perfect Search Engine

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.

Many people search for “furniture” but very few actually want something that vague.

Quick refinement options, targeted appropriately might be the best response. For example: “Indoor or outdoor furniture?” “What type of furniture?”

Most good websites do this already, through navigation drop downs and shopping widgets.

The results of these refined searches would get users much closer to their end goal and save them lots of time looking through websites that don’t carry what they’re actually after.

Advertisers would benefit tremendously from this as well. Instead of competing for traffic they may not actually want (because the user really wanted a mission-style dining room set, and they sell inexpensive living room and bed room furniture) they can compete for traffic after the user has clarified their intent. This would improve conversion rates, and save users time as well.

Let’s think about “flights to Cancun”. Spitting out websites that will then ask questions about dates and accoutrements is okay, but the future might see the engines take all the information needed from the user and then show the choices from the airlines directly bypassing the OTAs entirely.

In eCommerce, perhaps PSE would provide the same type of navigation options to get user’s to the product level before shipping them off to the advertiser’s site.

PSE has to figure out how to present the right questions and options, and exercise judgment in when to seek follow up and how many refinement questions to offer.

Clearly, we don’t want PSE to turn into Mr. Clippy:

Effectively PSE could evolve into the uber-website, taking most of the weight off of internal site navigation because the users come into the advertiser’s site at the right level of depth in the first place.

Perhaps PSERP would have a handful of “best guesses” at the top — paid or organic or some of each — with a prominent set of pull down refinements targeted to the category.

User: “Attorney”
PSE: “Here are some general listings for “Attorney”, but to expedite your search please select the type of attorney do you need from the following list.”

Perhaps today’s engines are heading down this path already. Quite possible that they’ve been down this path and found it to be less user friendly than I imagine (not PSERP but LSERP where the “L” is for lousy).

Perhaps this isn’t as different from “instant” as I think it could be.

The other question the panel mentioned but didn’t have time to flesh out was: is there a difference between what users would find to be PSE and what the advertisers would find to be PSE?

I think the answer is “no”. Satisfying the user’s intent on the first non-engine page will save users time and frustration, encouraging more search. Getting users what they want on the first click will greatly improve conversion rates for advertisers by better qualifying the traffic. Increasing the value of the traffic will increase the price advertisers are willing to pay which will MORE than compensate PSE for the reduction in fruitless clicks. Win-Win-Win.

A New Year’s present for all of us?

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