Musing about search

Like most people, I’m not particularly interested in “search”. I’m interested in “find”. Particularly when I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for. For various reasons I was thinking about search today, and remembered something I’d read a while ago.
Many years ago, during the heady days of the last Web boom, Mary Modahl (currently on the board of Yankee Group) wrote a book called Now Or Never: How Companies Must Change Today To Win The Battle For Internet Customers.

It’s a good book. And in it, Modahl recounts the tale of a car salesman in Somewheresville, USA. He had his own dealership, ran a solid and very profitable business. For many years. People came from all over the place to his dealership, because he was such a good salesman.

Now he knew that the number one item his customers wanted was a white pickup truck. But Head Office kept sending him green pickup trucks. And his customers would come looking for white pickups, and leave with green pickups. Somewhere deep inside the bowels of Head Office, someone would notice a spike in the sales of green pickups, and with the customary flash of brilliance associated with such people,  raise the production targets for green pickups, override all the salesman requests for white pickups, and send them even more green stuff.

But that was then. Today, the customer checks on the web first, makes contact with the car dealers, and then only goes to dealers that have white pickups for sale. So now, through no fault of his own, the salesman is behind the eight ball. He never gets the chance to use his dazzling selling skills, because the customers figured out he hasn’t got what they want. And the reason he doesn’t have what they want? Not because he didn’t know — he did — but because someone else was interested in what was sold to the customer and not what the customer wanted to buy.

The Intention.

[My apologies to Mary Modahl and to anyone else associated with the book if you feel I have misquoted; it’s six or seven years since I read the book, and the quote’s a paraphrase from memory].

I use the story to try and explain where I would like to see search going, particularly in an enterprise context.

I want to see much more of “Did you find what you were looking for?”

I want to understand why some people find what they are looking for faster than others.

I want to see the routes people take to do the finding.

Because somewhere in all that, somewhere among the steps and the categorisation and the differentiation, there is expertise. Some of the expertise is in the use of the search tool. But most of it is a way of looking into a person’s head and distilling the expertise contained, in a manner that it can be shared. And that’s when you have magic in the enterprise and in the classroom.
Search is about finding. And the path of discovery is about learning. And about expertise. The next generation of search will be about intention and how to capture and refine and improve the process.

6 thoughts on “Musing about search”

  1. I think this is a powerful and fascinating idea which shifts SEO from the hands of the searchees to those of the searchers. My immediate reaction is whether searchers (and I include myself in this) are often able to determine what it is they are looking for? I often find a good enough answer and am satisfied but perhaps I might have found a better answer and more quickly under your envisioned system.

  2. In which case you might be interested in Yedda – which I ‘discovered’ by stepping through three blogs I didn’t know existed but which were linked.

    You have to see the intention in order to see the potential with this one but I’d llike to see the idea go forward as a way of building expert communities.

  3. Back to wikipedia and brickipedia.
    Back to the brick and mortar library, about the most organised of institutions. Everything in it is catalogued, indexed and cross indexed. And the library member often knows exactly what he wants — and can’t find it.
    The solution? Ask the librarian. And he or she finds it in a jiffy. When you check out your books, they often do, as you suggest, ask whether you found what you wanted to find.
    Sadly, search engines are not librarians. What we need are librarians for the whole world wide web.

  4. Think about why you have to search, let alone find, in the first place? Why isn’t the knowledge already on your screen or in your head before your knew you had to go and find it? Like your example; the real win for customer experience would be if there had just been white trucks at the dealer, not that they can find which dealers have white trucks.

    There are plenty of context sensitive find and display technologies around but they still seem too mechanistic to be reliable. Maybe if we can find ways to articulate the role that we are performing at the time, as well as the subject matter, we can give the technology a better chance of helping us (or our customers).

  5. I think that the important subtext behind anant’s point is that librarians are not “repositories of information” (at least not primarily). A librarian is primarily a “point of contact,” based on the premise that a visit to a library is a SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT. Take away the social engagement and you take away any opportunity to get at the MOTIVES on which a search is founded. Take away an understanding of motive; and it no longer matters whether or not you get an answer to, “Did you find what you were looking for?” (which, of course, is seldom a yes/no answer).

    Now I still remember that librarians were almost entirely absent from the first digital libraries conference I attended over ten years ago. It became quickly apparent to the few brave enough to attend that the discourse of the conference was not going to address any of their concerns. I do not think things have improved very much (if at all). As far as I can tell, the compensation librarians receive for the efforts is on a decline (at least relative to the general economy); and the techno-centric ideal is still trying to purge them from “the loop.” In this setting it hardly makes sense to ask if our academies are doing a good job of educating the librarians of the future. To paraphrase the ultimate bad-taste commencement joke (delivered at Stanford about five years ago), the only question graduates of such a program will need to answer is, “Do you want fries with that?”

    Perhaps one of the reasons I continue to be skeptical about social software is that it continues to push critical issues of person-to-person engagement in favor of solving the “technical problem DU JOUR.” At the end of the day, there is not that much difference between an effective person-to-person engagement with a librarian and one with a car dealer; and, in both cases, technology seems to be doing a great job of IMPEDING how these people know how to get the job done. Today’s SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ran a story about the latest study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which included a sub-headline to the effect that “we may become pets of robots.” Well, if Web 2.0 creates a world in which we can no longer deal in effective person-to-person engagements, that may be all we shall be good for!

  6. aha… fantastic idea.. if you would use Enquisite it would answer all your questions and would give you enough search analytics data to satisfy many many more issues like click fraud, PPC tracking etc

Let me know what you think

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