Report from PC Forum Search Panel

The ZDNet “Behind the Lines” blog has a look at a search panel that took place at PC Forum last week. The panel included Marissa Mayer from Google, Udi Manber from A9, Alain Rappaport, CEO of Medstory; and Arkady Volozh, CEO of Yandex, the leading Russian search engine and portal.

Here are a few key items (from my point of view)

+ Google’s Marissa Mayer:

“We don’t know how to do [personalization] well, so we are starting with baby steps, such as knowing where you are as a context,” Mayer said.

It will be interesting to see if Google will eventually request more info from users to help with personalization. Another question is, will Google users want to provide the info?

She [Marissa Mayer] said, “We need to get better not at doing searches, but at providing answers people are looking for. There will be a day when ten HTML links regardless of who you are is not the answer any more.” She also said that the idea of everybody getting the same search result isn’t reasonable.

100% agree on this one. Large engines like Ask Jeeves and MSN are already doing work in this area. Yahoo is also offering many shortcuts that in some cases place an answer on the results page. Google, too! Companies like Kozoru are also doing work in this area. I’ve said numerous times that for certain “ready reference” queries, search engines will become answer engines. Answers instead of links will also be important for mobile web search to grow.

+ Udi Manber from A9

“In general, people will learn to use search better but have to invest the thinking–we are not in the mind reading business.”

Way to go Udi! I’m glad, no thrilled, to read this. A little (like a few minutes) of explanation or training can go a long way. It has been my experience that with a little education users not only leave the session having a couple of new skills but also get excited to go out and learn more on their own.

People can’t use what the don’t know about and unlike those of us who follow the search space closely, no one has told them what search tools can do with just a small amount of knowlege. As web engines grow larger, searching skills and knowledge about a variety of tools will become even more important. Yet, according to this study search skills haven’t really changed in the past seven years. Not every good answer can get into the Top 10 results when a searcher enters two or three keywords.

I’m not only talking about advanced searching skills like placing phrases in quotation marks (-:, but just showing people that large engines offer many services (news, images, shortcuts, etc) beyond the web search box. Also, this training time can be used to share info about specialized search tools (aka verticals) that might be able to save the searcher time, provide them with better results, and allow them to do more with the results.

Education about search and info retrieval should be a part of the curriculum from first grade on. If this is the “info age” (pardon the cliche), shouldn’t info retrieval skills along with critical info skills (ability to judge the quality of the content) be crucial? Unfortunately, in many cases, they’re not.

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