I was thinking about the way technology is moving forward and how we’re all collectively responding to our innate need to find stuff. The internet is built on a system of requests and responses. The very first “computerized” searches came in the form of relatively crude algorithms that were designed to brute force their way through reams of information to return the closest match to a given query. Present day search systems are much, MUCH more sophisticated. Predictive algorithms, organic search mechanisms, and multi-modal search engines (voice search for example) are just some of the ways that we’ve attempted to make “finding stuff” easier.
There’s just one problem. Finding stuff isn’t really easier because overall, people still don’t know how to search. Think about it. There’s still a massive disconnect between the way that the average person thinks, and the mindset that’s required to search for something “properly” online.
For example, let's look at a question that’s often used in a search scenario; “Where should I go for dinner tonight?” Now, if *I* were to start searching for the answer (and yes, I am somewhat snobbishly excluding myself from the general public in that I think differently when it comes to online searches), I would go to Google, make sure I’m cookied for Canada by signing into my Google account, and then I’d type something like the following into the query field:
The first [Google] result I received was pretty good; a "Places" entry for a casual restaurant within walking distance. However, if you type in a much more natural query like: “Where should I go for dinner tonight?” (still signed into my Google account mind you), the results are markedly different. The first result is a Yahoo Answers page from the US:
Now, there are of course some very valid reasons for the differences between the two sets of results. My question is a qualitative one, for starters. By asking a natural question, I wasn’t explicitly asking for a list of restaurants. How would the system know which restaurant I “should” go to? It doesn’t necessarily know what I like (yet). The system also doesn’t really know where I am unless I tell it (either through the query itself or via GPS if I’m using a mobile to execute the search). There are in fact a lot of variables that make “natural search queries” quite difficult to handle by a system that doesn’t know who you are.
A ha. Therein lies the reason why the current method of Search Engine Optimization (from the search engine’s perspective) is flawed. It starts off by assuming that the system is completely disconnected from the person asking the question. The goal is to provide enough information to this blind user in order to make the search result more relevant. Queue meta-tags, linking and content strategies, and any other number of mechanisms in order to make “possibly relevant” results float to the top.
Well, why bother with that assumption in the first place? You’d be hard pressed to find anyone with access to the internet that didn’t have some kind of profile or identity online, and most of those will continue to evolve as they accumulate history. For the record, I know that profile-related search results are perceived by some as scary - even though many of us are quick to enable things like search histories and information-sharing between websites - and there is merit to such concerns, but it also represents a whole other series of potential benefits.
Think about it like talking to a person you might trust with your personal information, whomever that may be. All of those people could be considered systems which are profile-aware. They know you in some specific context and as a result, they can provide you with answers to pretty vague questions: “I’ve got like…a thing on my arm, and it hurts. What’s wrong?." People, or systems that are engaged this way will actually be able to provide you with meaningful answers to your queries, and such systems are starting to emerge.
Enter Siri, for example. All of a sudden, “Where should I go for dinner tonight?” doesn’t seem all that unreasonable, does it? If there is a shift in focus from making disconnected information “possibly relevant”, to making relevant information accessible, the way we all search will continue to change drastically in the next few years. All of the pieces are already there. The same sophisticated search mechanisms I mentioned above wouldn’t have to change at all. Social media is already set up to gather information about us. The only bit that’s left to do is to connect the two properly.
Though, I guess the whole thing is really going to get weird when you start seeing stuff like this in response to a dinner selection query: