On Your Search Menu Tonight

First published October 4, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week Yahoo unveiled a new feature. It doesn’t really change the search game that much in terms of competitive functionality. If anything, it’s another case of Yahoo catching up with the competition. But it may have dramatic implications from a user’s point of view. To illustrate that point further I’d like to share a couple of stories with you.

The feature is called Search Assist. You type your query in, and Yahoo provides a list under the query box with a number of possible ways you could complete the query. This follows in the footsteps of Google’s search suggestions in its toolbar. Currently, Google doesn’t offer this functionality within the standard Google query box, at least in North America. Ask also offers this feature.

Because Yahoo is late to the game, the company had the opportunity to up the functionality a little bit. For example, the suggestions that come from Yahoo can include the word you’re typing anywhere in the suggested query phrase. Google uses straight stemming, so the word you’re typing is always at the beginning of the suggested phrases. Yahoo also seems to be pulling from a larger inventory of suggested phrases. The few test queries I did brought back substantially more suggestions than did Google.

It’s not so much the functionality of this feature that intrigues me; it’s how it could affect the way we search. I personally have found that I come to rely on this feature in the Google toolbar more and more. Rather than structuring a complete query in my mind, I type the first few letters of the root word in and see what Google offers me. It leads me to select query phrases that I probably never would have thought of myself.

Some time ago I wrote that contrary to popular belief, we’ve actually become quite adept at paring our queries down to the essential words. It’s not that we don’t know how to launch an advanced query; it’s that most times, we don’t need to. This becomes even truer with search suggestions. All we have to do is think of one word, and the search engine will serve us a menu of potential queries. It reduces the effort required from the searcher, but let me tell you a story about how this might impact a company’s reputation online.

I Wouldn’t Recommend That Choice

Some time ago I got a voicemail from an equity firm. The woman who left a message was brash, a little abrasive and left a rather cryptic message, insisting that I had to phone her right back. Now, since I’m in the search game, getting calls from venture capitalists and investment bankers is nothing really new. But I’d never quite heard this tone from one of these prospecting calls before. So, I did as I usually do in these cases and decided to do a little more research on the search engines to determine whether I was actually going to return this call or not. I did my quick 30-second reputation check.

Normally, I would just type in the name of the firm and see what came up in the top 10 results. Usually, if there’s strong negative content out there, it’s worth paying attention to and it tends to collect enough search equity to break the top 10. This time, I didn’t even have to get as far as the results page. The minute I started typing the company name into my Google toolbar, the suggestions Google was providing me told the entire story: “company” scam, “company” fraud and “company” lawsuits. Of the top eight suggestions, over half of them were negative in nature. Not great odds for success. Needless to say, I never returned the call.

If these search suggestions are going to significantly alter our search patterns, we should be aware of what’s coming up in those suggestions for our branded terms. Type your company name into Yahoo or Google’s toolbar and see what variations are being served to you. Some of them may not be that appetizing.

Would You Prefer Szechuan?

My belief is that users are increasingly going to use this to structure their queries. It moves search one step closer to be coming a true discovery engine. One of the overwhelming characteristics of search user behavior is that we’re basically lazy. We want to expand a minimal amount of effort but in return, we expect a significant degree of relevance. Search suggestions allow us to enter a minimum of keystrokes and the search engine obliges us with a full menu of options.

This brings me to my other story. Earlier this year we did some eye-tracking research on how Chinese citizens interact with the search engines Baidu and Google China. After we released the preliminary results of the study, I had a chance to talk to a Google engineer who worked on the search engine. In China, Google does provide real-time search suggestions right from the query box. The company found that it’s significantly more work to type a query in Mandarin than it is in most Western languages. Using a keyboard for input in China is, at best, a compromise. So Google found that because of the amount of work required to enter a query, the average query length was quite short in China, giving a substantially reduced degree of relevancy. In fact, many Chinese users would type in the bare minimum required and then would scroll to the bottom of the page, where Google showed other suggested queries. Then, the user would just click on one of these links. Hardly the efficient searching behavior Google was shooting for. After introducing real-time search suggestions for the query box, Google found the average length of query increased dramatically and supposedly, so did the level of user satisfaction.

Search query suggestions are just one additional way we’ll see our search behavior change significantly over the next year or two. Little changes, like a list of suggested queries or the inclusion of more types of content in our results pages, will have some profound effects. And when search is the ubiquitous online activity it is, it doesn’t take a very big rock to create some significant and far-reaching ripples.

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