Why Search Sucks & You Won’t Fix It The Way You Think

In my other post, I cover how I took part in Euro Foo Camp 2006 this past weekend. As part of that, I did a session called “Why Search Sucks & You Won’t Fix It The Way You Think.” Figuring my audience was likely filled with AJAX-happy, the-community-is-all-love-and-good tech types, I was deliberately trying to spark some discussion plus provide a reality check.

We actually didn’t have a lot of discussion in the end about how search could or would change, nor was the session of 15 or so people meeting the stereotype above. Instead, we ended up talking generally about a variety of search issues — some trends, some particular search engines and so on.

I didn’t provide a super formal presentation, since I’d turned up not really expecting to do anything at all. I mainly focused on a bunch of screenshots on things people have tried with search over time. In case you’re interested, here’s what I was showing with some limited commentary about what I said. Sorry I can’t delve even deeper into a fully-fleshed out article, but I’m short of time for that, at the moment!

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Here’s AltaVista in 1997:

AltaVista 1997

Here’s Google today:

Google 2006

Things really haven’t changed much. Drop AltaVista’s banner and graphical logo, and the home page might as well be Google. Nearly ten years, and it’s still a case of here’s a search box, push submit and away you go.

Consider these:

Search Boxes Over Time

In this slide, I focus on the core of each page, the search boxes. AltaVista’s not that different from Google, with tabs in 2003 and then links in 2006 replacing the drop-down box. At the bottom, the end result of millions of dollars worth of efforts by Microsoft to give us the latest and greatest in search — a box that would be about the same if I put either a Google or AltaVista logo over it.

Look at these:

Microsoft Search Then & Now

In the top, the search results from Microsoft’s MSN Search in 1998. The bottom, results from Microsoft’s Windows Live Search today. Honestly, they might as well be the same. Sure, Windows Live doesn’t have numbers. The exact results might be different. Banner ads are gone. But the presentation is still basically the same — a bunch of links.

What else could we have? When I started my presentation, I joked I was a man beaten down by 10 years of promises about how cool and wonderful search results were going to be, how we’d fly through things and so on. Here’s an example of that:

AltaVista LiveTopics

That image (I gathered it from here) is an example of AltaVista LiveTopics in 1997. Years ago, LiveTopics got a ton of buzz about how it would be the next big thing in search. But six months later, it turned into this:

AltaVista Refine

That image (gathered from here) was how LiveTopics transformed into AltaVista Refine. You see, no one really played with that oh-so-cool looking way AltaVista LiveTopics meant for you to explore a topic before getting results. Refine was a way to insert choices more directly into search results.

Refine didn’t catch on. For whatever reason, users seemed locked into what I call the “DOS Of Search” interface, where you do a search and get back those standard results in a list. They simply don’t break that habit. Whether it’s is because it is the best solution or because it is something they’ve learned to expect, I don’t know. I just know other attempts don’t catch on.

What other attempts? Well….


That image above is Clusty today, a service that’s been out for a year or two at this point, and a concept that owner Vivisimo has been doing for even longer than that. Do a search, then narrow in on what you are looking for as the technology automatically organizes the results into categories, topics, tags. Call them whatever you want. It’s cool. It’s neat. And it’s never caught on (for web search), for whatever reason.

Here’s Grokker from today:


It’s also been around for a few years, and initially promised we’d fly through our results. Well, you can — but that never proved so useful. It’s slower than doing a regular search, the clustering isn’t perfect and frankly, I think most people don’t find it that useful.

Here’s KartOO from today:


Do a search, get your pages with little lines between them. Cool! Except I have no idea what all the lines mean, at first glance. There’s information there, but it’s not clear and not necessarily that helpful.

Here’s Ujiko from today:


Got Flash? Get your results in some strange mobile-phone looking console. Compare this to those earlier screenshots of Google, AltaVista and Microsoft. This is weird, wacky, different. But it hasn’t taken off. Because it’s had no attention? Sure, it’s had attention. It hasn’t taken off because I don’t think the presentation works or is that useful. If it really were that great, something that advanced us from the DOS Of Search to the Windows Of Search, more people would be using it.

As a side note, I love the Ujiko people. I actually love all these strange things. At least they are real different attempts to shake up the model. They get you thinking, even if they aren’t hits.

Now consider this:

Google 2005

That’s my “Google 2005” image that I made back in 2001, when I did a presentation to a librarian’s group to explain the challenge facing search engines. Google and other search engines all have all these special options and vertical services that are growing. My slide was to illustrate that Google couldn’t keep adding tabs. More important, even if it did, no one clicks on them. That’s why I talked about the entire invisible tabs model that was coming.

Since then, invisible tab support has only been growing. Rather than the super cool interface options that some might think will get users to change habits, search engines still rely on doing the heavy lifting themselves. Are you searching for sf mortgage broker on Google and still clueless they have local listings? Fine….

Google Maps In Web Search

That image shows how Google tries to shove those local listings in your face. And some day, rather than them just being one link promoted above the regular web search results, you’ll get page full of them.

Overall, I have a big dose of skepticism when anyone tells me how search is going to radically change in terms of presentation. Most of the wacky things I’ve seen over the years don’t really improve the search experience — and they definitely tend not to consider the strong habit that years of using the DOS Of Search interface have ingrained in searchers, for better or worse.