Search Engines Succeed at Stoking Frustration

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-02-24

Search Engines Succeed at Stoking Frustration

Matt Hicks story about the blossoming of "vertical" search engines got me thinking about what I want when I search and what Im not getting.

Like most people, I am a big Google user, though my support for that service has, as a political pollster might say, "gone soft" in recent months.

Put another way: I used to love Google, as I had loved Alta Vista, Excite and Yahoo before. But now another search engine could easily pry me from Googles grip. Or Google could win back my heart. It all depends on whether Google can improve before something better shows up.

Ive been thinking that contextual or vertical search could be the solution to some of my angst. But I have my doubts, explained below.

Sometimes I also think that for common searches I might be better off with a service that actually involves humans in finding answers online, if any of those still exist.

Or maybe I could try or even the Wikipedia.

Click here to read more about vertical search engines on the Web.

What Google needs is a rebalancing. It ought to be possible to filter out results that are merely offers to sell a particular item while leaving real content behind.

While there is certainly a need to find products and prices on the Internet, those results can also clutter up search results to the point of making them useless.

Recently, I was trying to learn whether a particular recording artist/composer had written a piece of music I like. (Its the main riff in Andreas Johnsons "Glorious" and Bonds "Explosive").

I searched on the name of the composer who may or may not have written the musical theme.

I got a zillion results offering to sell me the guys albums (Ive since forgotten his name), but after working through several pages of results, Id found nothing about the man himself.

There is a place for search engines that scoop up as much of the Web as possible, but only if they get better at tossing out the garbage.

Every week it seems as though Google becomes less useful because of clutter in the results it delivers.

Theres the commercial clutter I just mentioned. There is also the clutter of sites that pretend to be search results but are really search tools themselves—ones Ive never heard of but also seem to appear when I accidentally mistype a URL.

Next Page: Narrowed searches and expanding problems.

Narrowed searches and

expanding problems">

The newest thing in clutter is blog entries. While blogs can provide interesting and useful content, entries that just refer to another site, as in "If youre interested in blah, theres a really great article about it at…"can waste a lot of a researchers time.

I had this happen when I did a search for information about using the new Mac mini and a media center.

Click here to read more about the Mac Mini.

The results included an article that was useful, but much of what I found was a bunch of blog entries that were merely links back to the first article.

In general, if I dont find what I am looking for in the first few pages of results, I will rephrase the search request.

If that doesnt work after a couple of tries, I give up. Usually I will later discover better search terms and use them to eventually find what I am looking for.

The value of a vertical search engine would presumably be its ability to narrow the search before the user even typed in a phrase.

One way to do this is to limit whats being searched to a reasonably narrow collection of sources. Google could, of course, do this, and probably will.

Read more here about Googles AutoLink feature stirring debate.

I am not sure standalone vertical search engines will be able to compete with Google, MSN and the other majors.

If a vertical really has a better search methodology, it would be much more profitable to try to beat Google at its own mass-market game than to go vertical.

The ideal vertical search engine, as I said, would involve humans in the day-to-day collection and ranking of content.

This is what does, and is not too far off the Wikipedia track.

Both use outside experts to gather content. Of course, neither is a search engine so much as a collection of content about particular topics.

Having real people working alongside the spider technology to tune results could give a small search engine a leg up on the majors, but at what cost?

Most of the companies that used humans to create online directories are long gone.

So I am pessimistic that small search engines will be able to outgun the major search providers.

But my eyes are open, and Google isnt meeting my needs nearly as well as it once did.

If someone can show me a truly better search engine, Ill use it—and so will millions of other people.

Googles support is softer than it probably realizes.

Contributing Editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. Before joining, David was executive editor of ZDNet AnchorDesk and has been a columnist for PC World, ComputerWorld and other publications. Former executive producer of DEMO and other industry events, he also operates a technology consulting and event management business. A full bio and contact information may be found on his Web site,

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