Who Will Own the Search Experience?

[qi:074] There’s big action in search engines these days: see Web Worker Daily’s list of 11 alternative search engines, Read/Write Web’s top 100, and the GigaOM show’s opening question to Google’s (GOOG) Marissa Mayer about the spate of search engine competitors.

But even as would-be Googles aim at the apparent heart of search — the keyword or natural language query itself — the place of greatest user need could lie a level above, at the iterative and exploratory pathways that users often follow in finding and refinding the information they need.

We know who owns the search engine. Who will own the entire search experience? Right now it’s up for grabs.

Teleporting or orienteering to what you want

In 1993, researchers Vicki O’Day and Robin Jeffries contrasted two types of information-seeking behavior: teleporting and orienteering. With teleporting, you try to jump directly to what you’re looking for — think of the Google “I’m feeling lucky” search. With orienteering, you use local and contextual information to guide you, step-by-step, to your information destination.

In teleporting, all you need is the perfect search engine. With orienteering, you need a bunch of different tools: general and specialized search engines, browsing history, query reformulation and refinement, information refinding support, and so forth.

Here’s an example of orienteering from Jon Udell:

1. Find [a New York Times magazine article about Olin College, a clean-slate redesign of an engineering school]
2. Note the date: Sept. 30, 2007
3. Search the Times archive for Sept. 30, 2007
4. Restrict that search to the magazine section

Microsoft user interaction researcher Jaime Teevan, who brought the concept of teleporting and orienteering into the web age, told me that search engines “theoretically support teleporting, but in practice, they’re used for orienteering.” Despite this potential disconnect, she’s found that people are pretty satisfied with search today.

Users do, however, express feelings of being overwhelmed by information, and searches sometimes outright fail, as when Teevan observed a user trying without success to find the customary tip for a hairdresser. Could better orienteering support help with information overload and failed searches?

Why people orienteer

Teleporting doesn’t always work. Search engines don’t know enough about what we want to get us there, and we’re not giving them much help — people tend to use two- or three-word keyword searches. Better personalization will help, but won’t, on its own, remove the need to orienteer.

Orienteering has advantages over teleporting, too. It gives you confidence in the information you’ve found, teaches you the context for future searches, and allows you to backtrack if you happen to go down the wrong path. With teleporting, you either get there or you don’t, and if you don’t, you need to start almost from zero.

Search experience improvements, present and future

Google itself includes features that support iterative, step-by-step search with options such as “refine your search,” which suggests ways to quickly narrow in on just what you want; “similar pages,” which finds pages similar to a result you like; and a “spell checker,” which suggests alternative queries with more common spellings than the ones you’ve already used.

Search engines like Google, however, usually only see certain parts of the search experience. In refinding the article he knew existed, Udell may have used Google as a first step, but then he navigated through the New York Times site. No one search engine sees all of the pathways you take through the information forest.

The browser’s the place

Your browser already supports your orienteering, both with basic history features and by giving you access to all the search engines and web sites you wander through on your way to your destination. But it could do better, and product developers and researchers are aiming to improving it.

Microsoft’s Teevan is experimenting with a browser toolbar plug-in that supports refinding information online, a very common and often frustrating task. She told me other researchers are working on better history displays; for example, linked thumbnail images. Not to be left out, Google already has the start of an orienteering solution: its “web history” feature, which works via the browser-installed Google Toolbar.

Of course, other search engines have a place in orienteering as well, because orienteering-style search relies on multiple tools to gradually step towards the goal. For example, if a general search engine doesn’t get you moving to where you want, a vertical or people-powered search engine might. Still, there’s an opportunity here to improve the entire search experience — and you don’t have to build your own search engine to do that.