First published October 13, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
I’m not sure if this is being done in some university somewhere, but I would love to know if our use of search engines is changing how we communicate.
The search query is a form of communication that is deceptive in its simplicity. We are becoming adept at paring down complex concepts into a few well-chosen words, with no unnecessary filler. Even if we do throw in a few “the”s and “what”s, the search engine conveniently strips them from our query.
For example, I wanted to know what time zone Atlanta is in today. I went to Google and typed, “What is the local time in Atlanta?” Google truncated my query to “local time Atlanta.” Of the seven words I typed, four were unnecessary.
Which leads me to think, how many unnecessary words do we use every day as we communicate? If I cut this column down to the bare minimum of words required to convey the concept, it would probably drop from about 800 words to 200 or so. How much of our lives do we spend jamming extraneous words into our conversations and e-mails?
Who’s the advanced searcher?
The common view is that we’re pretty unsophisticated in the way we use search. Less than 5 percent of all searches use advanced search techniques, and by advanced, I mean something as simple as using query operators like “and,” “all” or “not.” I’m betting that the vast majority of Google users have never clicked on that little “Advanced Search” link that sits next to the search box. Sometimes, I think we search marketers are the only ones who ever use these features to mine Google’s index for competitive intelligence regarding back links and pages indexed. But I’m beginning to believe the common view is misguided. I think we’re getting quite sophisticated; we have learned how to make a few words go a long way. Don’t mistake short queries for a lack of sophistication. Generally, a short query matches our intent at the time. We want a broad, inclusive focus. When we’re ready to narrow the parameters, we add the words necessary. We understand that search is an iterative process.
Men (and women) of few words.
One of my favorite examples of on-the-mark ripostes was between two literary adversaries, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Their exchange went like this: Faulkner said of Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
And Hemingway’s response: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Perhaps search engines are turning us into the Hemingways of the online generation. We cut out the fat, distilling concepts into the fewest words possible. We are learning the language of the search query. And although it’s not perfect, and can be frustrating at times, most of the time it works very well, thank you.
Consider the plight of Ask Jeeves. This engine made much of its ability to interpret queries written in plain English. In other words (lots of other words), queries that didn’t have the fat removed. The idea was that we would be more comfortable interacting with an engine with personality, which spoke the same language we do. Ask Jeeves’ current share of the search market? Less than 2 percent (according to Hitwise). While the Ask Jeeves model might have been attractive to new Internet users, we tend to pick up “SearchSpeak” pretty quickly. It’s not difficult. After a couple of queries, we learn how many words it takes to bring back the results we’re looking for, most of the time. Soon, we leave full sentences behind and cut back to just the essential words to frame our search intent.
So, if I’m right, what will our communications look like in a few short years? Will we have discarded the majority of the language, communicating in pared-down, task-oriented phrases? Will using search lead us into a new linguistic shorthand? A manifestation of this trend is now being seen in e-mails and instant messaging. In some cases, we’re even discarding words completely and going with acronyms. You don’t laugh uproariously anymore, you LOL, and if it’s really funny, you ROTFLMAOPMP.
Going further, will a truncated version of English become the new international language? Will SearchSpeak pick up where Esperanto left off? Finally, you can have revenge on your grade school grammar teacher and toss away adverbs, adjectives, modifiers and participles to your heart’s content. All we’ll be left with is a handful of tried-and-true nouns and the odd verb. Anybody should be able to become fluent in SearchSpeak in a few months. Then, you can travel the globe, communicating in short, to-the-point phrases: “London pub, near Buckingham Palace” or “Paris hotel NOT rude staff.” While the discarding of the majority of the English language may be a frightening thought, it’s not really that big a leap. This is pretty much the way we all communicated with our parents when we were between the ages of 13 and 18: “Goin’ out…Nowhere…Nothing.Later.”