Herewith Chapter Two of the search travelogue. Between late 1994 and early 1996 I was occupied full-time and then some building and running one of the first Web search engines, the long-departed Open Text Index. There weren’t many million-hits-a-day sites back then. When you’re running that kind of thing, you spend a lot of time watching your logs to figure out what your users are doing and what makes them happy. There are two lessons that loom larger than all the others put together.

Nobody Uses Advanced Search... · Every search engine has an “advanced search“ screen, and nobody (quantitatively, less than 0.5% of users) ever goes there. This drove us nuts back at Open Text, because our engine was very structurally savvy and could do compound/boolean queries that look like what today we’d call XPath. But nobody used it.

What most people want is to have a nice simple field into which they will type on average 1.3 words and hit Enter, and have the result come back to them. So anyone who’s building search needs to focus almost all their energy on doing an as-good-as-possible job given those 1.3 words and no other inputs.

...Except the People who Do · Of course, the people who do use Advanced Search are your most fanatical users, the professional librarians, spooks, and private investigators. And the ones who will do what it takes to find out everything about research on the rare disease their child just got diagnosed with. These people tend to be loud-mouthed and aggressive and will get in your face if you don’t have advanced search or it’s not real good.

Since, weirdly enough, it’s much easier to offer a good advanced than simple search, this will not be your big problem.

One Page of Results · Here’s the bad news: Most people, after they’ve done a search, won’t look at more than one page of result list. I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips; they’re not as bad as the less-than-half-a-percent that will do a compound query, but they’re not big. This one you can do something about: put more results on your first page. In the early days, all the search engines had ten results on page one, but we learned.

My Job · At Antarctica, our Visual Net product is directly motivated by these painful observations. As we’ll discover, there is little likelihood that search is going to get dramatically better any time soon, so what we’re all about is hiding compound queries behind point-and-click, and fitting way more information on search-result screens. Of course we say a lot about Cartographic Metaphors and Visual Interfaces and so on, and we mean it, but the big pain we relieve has a lot to do with the irritating behavior of search users.

I myself average at least 1.4 words on my Google searches, so there.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
June 17, 2003
· Technology (77 fragments)
· · Search (66 more)

By .

I am an employee
of Amazon.com, but
the opinions expressed here
are my own, and no other party
necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my
professional interests is
on the author page.