The last entry on Yahoo’s new search got me thinking about search results, and in particular Google’s, which nearly everyone imitates in one form or another. We all know about the endless list of results, 10 to a page, stretching past what Tim Bray calls “the Google event horizon.” I used to think that horizon was 100 or so entries – no one will ever look further than that. But the truth is, it’s usually one page of listings, if not less.
I’ve gotten to thinking – what’s the use of having all those results? I mean, really, from a user interface point of view, the only information we gain from “Results 1 – 10 of about 3,950,000” is the rather attenuated sense that the search engine is, in fact, pretty darn thorough. That used to be a big deal, back when engines were really crappy. But these days we expect engines to be thorough. What’s the point of giving me a list of more than 3 million results when I am never, ever, ever going to go through them?
Seems to me it’s time to change the interface. Clearly many others have thought about this, from Grokker to Mooter to Vivisimo and beyond. But it’s the big guys, Google and Yahoo, that make the standards, and I think we’re getting close to the point where a new user interface paradigm is needed for search. Danny talks about invisible tabs, and that’s a good idea. But I’m not talking about intuiting what the user wants – that’s the hard stuff, and I know there are plenty of PhDs working on that. I’m talking about something much less difficult – changing the way results we get are presented.
Here’s what I’d like to see, as a small step in a new direction: A button that I can hit when the results come up which reshuffles the search in an intelligent way. In a fit of originality, I’ll call it the “reshuffle” button. Show me the first ten pages, and only those first ten. Just as I do now, I’ll scan them. If there’s nothing there, I’ll hit “Reshuffle”, and the engine shows me another 10 results, only this time, it eliminates pages that are similar to the ones it showed me before. This way, you can quickly and intuitively sift through all those results, grokking and pruning your search as you go. This is not some massively new visual approach, it’s just a quick hack that allows me to drill down. It’s this kind of stuff, I think, the simple stuff, which ends up being the most elegant and useful. I know there’s much work to be done, there are plenty of NP-hard problems to solve in search (I know because I’m trying to grok them and write them up in plain english for my book). But solving those problems will take years.
In my discussions with folks at Google and elsewhere, I often hear a resistance to changing search approaches due to technical reasons – clustering, for example, is not used at Google because the results are not considered relevant enough. But what about the user interface for results? The most frustrating thing in the world is seeing “Results 1 – 10 of about 3,950,000” and knowing that somewhere in that haystack is your needle. But why sift blindly through the event horizon? Maybe some UI innovation on top of the current results can help.
(While I’m ranting, I’d like the engine to suggest better query terms for me. It can’t be that hard to store user queries and cluster those which have similar constructions, query words, or results/paths taken. I’d like to hit a button that says “show me similar searches.” I think this exists somewhere, but I can’t remember where (yeah, I know about Direct Hit, that’s not what I mean exactly). It’s not quite collaborative filtering, but it points that way.)
Any readers out there know about tools or research that does some of what I’m on about, or a response as to why UI innovation is a bad/too difficult idea?