In Search of Usefulness

First published October 29, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

A few years ago, I interviewed usability expert Jakob Nielsen about where search might go in the future. He shared an interesting insight:I think there is a tendency now for a lot of not very useful results to be dredged up that happen to be very popular, like Wikipedia and various blogs. They’re not going to be very useful or substantial to people who are trying to solve problems.”

That stuck with me. Relevance, as determined by search algorithms, and usefulness are not the same thing. And then, John Battelle touched on the same topic in a blog post a few months back:  So first, how would I like to decide about my quest to buy a classic car? Well, ideally, I’d have a search application that could automate and process the tedious back and forth required to truly understand what the market looks like.”

Navigating Complex Decisions

Again, this concept of usability comes into play. Let me give you another example. As my regular readers know, I love to travel with my family. But the available travel sites still require the tedious back and forth that Battelle talks about.

We’re not big on hotels or restaurants. We love home exchanges or renting apartments and homes directly from the owner.  We tend to fly on mileage points. We don’t take bus tours, but we do rent cars. We prefer staying in smaller towns rather than big cities. And our first day in a new location always involves a trip to the nearest grocery store.

There is no online destination that brings all the usefulness I need together into one place. I manually pull information from,,, and a dozen other sites.

Planning a family holiday is a lot of work, but I’m willing to do it because it’s fun for me. What about tasks that aren’t as much fun? What about the planning that has no inherent reward, like a complicated purchase for your company, or a forced move to a new city? The title of Battelle’s post was “Search Frustration: It’s Still Hit or Miss on Complex Decisions.” I can relate.

This was the approach Microsoft decided to take with, the “Decision Engine.” I think their instincts and strategy are right, but the execution is off. If I search for Bristol, England (we’re doing a home exchange there next summer) on Bing, I still see a pretty standard search results page. It’s not that useful to me.

I agree completely that there’s a strong need for more usability in search. Google’s Achilles heel at this point is its focus on relevance at the expense of usability.  We need a much deeper, more useful experience. Relevance is a poor proxy for usefulness. It still leaves all the heavy lifting up to the user.

Search or Decision Engine? Just Decide!

“Usefulness” is a difficult trick to pull off. It’s a tough road that Microsoft has chosen. But if you’re going to do it, commit fully to it. Don’t play the safe middle ground. This is not the place for half measures.

Whether by design or by luck, I think Microsoft picked the one area where Google is most vulnerable, but right now there isn’t enough differentiation between the two. If Microsoft truly wants to be a “decision engine,” its strategists have to build from the ground up to offer more usefulness.  I’m now four clicks into Bing for “Bristol, England” and still haven’t found anything particularly useful to me. Four clicks are way too many. The information forager in me would have already moved on to a new destination.

The next three years in search will be about aggregation of information and incorporating usefulness. Search will do much more than just organize the world’s information; it will allow you to do something with it. Search will become the ultimate mash-up. And increasingly, those intersections will happen on mobile devices. Microsoft is the only one of the major players to have declaratively set sail in that direction. My advice? Forget what search is today and move with all possible speed to what search needs to become tomorrow.

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