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.


  1. says

    Great collection of screen shots.
    It’s hard to imagine the query field changing. How else can users tell the search engine their goal? Possibly there will be ways to spur users to provide greater detail in the query that could aid in presenting relevant results. I love assisted query completion like Kayak has because I never remember those darn airport codes and I’m a terrible speller. I think there are some possibilites in this area that can be explored.
    I’ll use Kayak again as an example of what can be done on a SERP. I think they have made great strides in delivering relevance by enabling more user control of the results. So much so that Yahoo has copied them. Of course it’s much easier for them as a vertical engine to deliver relevance but if there is one thing that threatens the big engines it is better user experiences elsewhere, namely verticals.

  2. garypool says

    The screen shots are great and speak to usability. People know how to use the simple fill in the box form on the search query. The book hasn’t changed over the years either but the way the book is made has. The way search engines have changed a lot but the interface has basically remained the same. I think this speaks for usability. If it works why try to fix it? As far as the results go the new style interfaces are fun but they all have a learning curve. I’m glad there are designers out there who like to push the envelope. It is fun to use these new results interfaces. You can call me old and stuffy but I prefer to use the time true method of linear results for actual information.

  3. web4print says

    I just want to chime in with garypool here. The book analogy is great. This all has to do with the way our written language works. For non-information-rich uses of language, all sorts of different presentations might be effective or interesting, but what we are trying to do when we read a book is get the information into our brains. This is the same reason we’ve been using such similar character sets for so long for reading – display and special effect fonts can be wacky, but for hours of reading we want classic serif fonts. Search is a verbal process for the most part, so effective display of results is going to be blocks or columns of text. In my experience, anything else is just annoying. As for the input field, well, it could be round instead of rectangular but this would be pretty gratuitous! I guess you see some non-linear but still verbal interfaces, like tag clouds. But these only work for general concepts – and I am suspicious that from an informational point of view this type of presentation is better than just a column of terms with the ‘biggest’ at the top. Think about how fast you can get through a half dozen search engine results pages and get a good idea of the content of all those sites. It’s all down to scanning that text. There is a case to be made for creativity when it comes to searching for different things, such as the map example or images or whatever, but 90-some% of what we are searching for is verbal I think.

  4. Elihu Vedder says

    I hope you do a more complete history of SERPs. Aside from clustering, which usually fails because the presentation of the buckets for clustering is inscrutable, what about question-answering, one-boxes, link lookahead, more experimental forms of summarization than the Google standard snippet,etc?

  5. willyhoops says

    Great article… Every day I fire up Excel and Visual Studio to write C++ XLL Excel addins; and today’s DOS Search box just hurts so much. I thought Microsoft were going to build an installed app with lots of complexity, Live Search almost deserves to fail for its lack of inventiveness. On you points: How about two search boxes so I can put a context and subject. Then we can avoid the multiple tabs. And how about showing me the Topic in the search results and if the engine is onto the wrong idea I can right click and remove similar entries. We can do better… Bill said Today Search is Nothing – well do something about it then.

  6. Hivemind says

    Well there is no point changing the superficial details if they work perfectly well the way they are, simple is almost always better.

  7. says

    You may like to check out SpaceTime3D at http://www.spacetime.com. SpaceTime3D offers visual search through a website that lets you search your favorite websites such as Google, Flickr Images, Wikipedia and Visualize your search results. In addition, they also have the SpaceTime Browser that offers, Visual Search (Google + Yahoo!), Visual Shopping (eBay), Visual Search for Video (YouTube) and RSS Feeds. In addition, they offer the equivalent of tabbed browsing in 3D. The web destination is neat if you want to get a quick overview of a Google search visually. The browser is useful if you are researching a topic and would like to manage allot of information in one space without loosing track of what you are doing. SpaceTime3D was one of the early pioneers of Visual Search and 3D Browsing on the web. You should check it out.

  8. says

    Funny. I just found this on SearchEngineLand – 3 years later – and it is still as relevant today as it was 3 years ago. The fact is any time you try to change user behavior, especially an active one like entering into a search box that people have done tens of thousands of times (count this – if I search 5 times a day, that is 1,600 searches a year, Google is well on a decade old… do the math), it takes a huge amount of time and investment. Google didn’t change the behavior, they changed the quality of the results of the behavior. That will be how someone beats current engines in the future – and those discoveries is still out there to be made and commercialized