Monday, March 13, 2006

Vertical Search: Down with shotgun searching!

I don't mean to pick exclusively on Google here, but they'resynonymous with the kind of shotgun approach to searching that we poorconsumers have come to know and love (or hate as my case may be).

The usefulness of top-level search engines has been rapidly deteriorating forme over the past 6-12 months or so, not because they're gettingworse, but because the shine is rubbing off. I find search results are usually non-authoratative, which is generally the kind of info I'mafter (I can only tolerate random musings from random people for solong). I like to have some context for content I consume. If I searchfor "nice Paris hotels" in Google, I get a blast of random results;some of them useful, most of them not. If, however, I go to anauthoritative (by my definition) travel site, and do the same search, Iget meaningful results that allow me to form a more useful opinion(perhaps the results are standardized/familiar, or I understand andhave come to rely on a known rating system, etc.).

Indexing the entire web is actually not very useful unless you channel thetop-level query somehow. One way to accomplish this is to constrain thecontext of all searches coming into the search field of some site. Forexample, MapQuest searches are constrained to location specificoutcome. Searching consumerreports.org yields product specific results.I'm finding the data I share with others, and consider of personal highvalue and relevancy, is coming much less frequently from Google, andrather through vertical searches I do at tailored, context specificsites.

If I want to get reputable news, I go to reputablesites (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc), and happily paysubscription fees for said content. If I want medical research, I go todiscipline specific sites and ante up the money they ask for in returnfor a report/document. The adage "you get what you pay for" comes tomind.

A major problem with Google-type crawling andindexing is that it will never reach the dark web (the content outthere that is only accessible via usernames and logins). I suspect thatthis content dwarfs the amount of content openly available on the web.Some search products are on board with the value of vertical search.a9.com has hundreds of vertical search plugins that you can checkboxon/off to constrain your searches (and yes, you can search through thelist of vertical search plugins :-) ). I recently found an obscuremedical study that provided evidence of a hunch I've had all my lifefor a specific medical condition surrounding headaches; I wouldn't havefound that report in a million years using Google.

Consumer oriented products are too general to be very useful. Ifthese products added just one level of indirection, our experienceswould be significantly enhanced. Disambiguation at search.aol.com (lefthand column) is a great way to start to narrow things. As is, verticalsearch plugin selection at a9.com.

Imagine how much more useful Tivo recommendations would be if, afteryou thumbs up'ed something, you were asked to answer a multiple choicequestion: "why did you thumbs up this program: you liked the actors,you liked the subject matter, you liked the length, etc?"

Imagine howmuch more useful the web would be if you could further constrain yourthinking when you set off on your quest for information.

BusinessWeek gets it: "ASearch Engine for Every Subject"

WallStreet Journal gets it: "BeyondGoogle"

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