Recent Innovations in Search presentation

On Tuesday, April 12, I attended BayCHI’s monthly program at PARC in Palo Alto. Peter Norvig of Google, Ken Norton of Yahoo!, Mark Fletcher of Ask Jeeves, Udi Manber of A9, and Jakob Nielsen of Nielsen Norman Group participated in a panel discussion of “Recent Innovations in Search and Other Ways of Finding Information.”

The auditorium was packed. Every seat was filled and many attendees sat in the aisle or in front of the first row of seating. Closed-circuit televisions were setup in the lobby to accommodate the overflow.

Each panelists presented their organization’s unique view on usability and search before joining the discussion panel.

Peter Norvig, Google

Peter mentions that users will sometimes fax a copy of the Google home page with a written query inside the search box. These are obviously confused about how to get started, or maybe just playing a practical joke.

Google recently launched Google Answers: a database of facts extracted from their crawls of the Web. Not all sites have the same answer to the same query, but Google aggregates the answers and displays the majority opinion at the top of its search results.

Ken Norton, Yahoo!

Yahoo! launched its search technology in February 2004 and has been rapidly adding new features over the past 14 months. Yahoo! Search’s vision is “to enable people to find, use, share and expand all human knowledge.”

Y!Q brings Yahoo! search directly to the page so users may conduct a search at the point of inspiration. Flickr, Yahoo! 360, and My Yahoo! demonstrate the direction the company is moving in the social media space.

Mark Fletcher, Ask Jeeves

Mark started Bloglines because he had over 100 sites bookmarked and it was taking him too much time to keep up with every site on the list. Bloglines’ main goal is to allow users to search, subscribe, share, and publish online content. Bloglines currently adds 1.6 million articles to its database daily and is about to pass 400 million stored articles.

Future Bloglines search features include the ability to search over a defined set such as a group of friends and to easily search and filter articles.

Udi Manber, A9

Udi Manber showed off A9 Yellow Pages. A9 used GPS technology and digital cameras to capture over 28 million images of storefronts across the United States. This visual browsing technique allows users to easily search by proximity to a known landmark. A9 captured the images using specialized equipment placed inside rental SUVs.


Amazon’s IT department would not allow Udi’s team to use an unlocked laptop in the field, so A9 devised a specialized mouse to prevent the laptop computer in the passenger seat from going to sleep after a period of input inactivity.

Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group

Jakob presented statistics of search activity over time. The mean length of query strings has increased from 1.3 words in 1.3 words in 1994 to 2.2 words in 2004. 42% of search users surveyed felt they had found their desired result. Jakob commented that “search on websites are a miserable failure” and “a disgrace for the field.”

Jakob showed a screen capture with audio of one woman’s search experience on AOL while searching for headache cures. The audience had a good laugh as the woman could not locate the proper text box for her search or navigate the search results. When she finally reached a destination website she almost clicked an unrelated skyscraper-style advertisement along the side of the page, thinking it might have an answer.

Usability problems pie chart

Panel discussion

The first question posed to the panel was about the evolution of search queries. Mark Fletcher commented that Ask Jeeves has seen query length decrease, possibly because users expect relevant information with less input. Udi Manber mentioned that research shows the length of a query is directly related to the size of the search input box. Jakob Nielsen commented that the average search input box is 18 characters wide but 90% of queries need at least 27 characters.

The second question was about tags as a new search interface. Ken Norton mentioned that tags are not much different than Yahoo!’s current analysis and weighting of anchor text. Jakob commented that it is less work to make a tag than to make a weblog entry.

During the audience question and answer session there was a question about search engine abuse and web spam. Peter Norvig of Google said Google is aware of bad actors and they take steps to identify the bad actors. Web spam has centralized targets making it an easier problem to solve than e-mail spam. Spam is also expensive to do well. “If we keep catching them, penalizing, and setting them back to square one we will demotivate and they will disappear.”