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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Search Technology Assumes There's Something to Search

This very timely post by Google Fellow Amit Singhal gives us a brilliant capsule summary of past and present trends in information retrieval. Most of those who pay close attention will be familiar with the high level trends, as well as some of the bells and whistles that search engines have added that do a great job of guessing at user intent.

In nearly every bullet point though, there is an unspoken assumption that is at odds with the thinking of at least half the "folks new to search" I encounter - those just now thinking about beefing up their business' visibility on search engines. Namely: Singhal's post assumes that the search technology has something substantive to index, consider, and rank for the benefit of those seeking information. Today's search engines could care less about ranking "sites," "pages," and "companies," outside of any context like "there is something textual on that site, page, and to do with that company that we can search for."

In other words, doing better in search isn't primarily about labeling, it's about substance, and most of that substance - this is what Singhal's bullet points merely assume, but do not spell out in the painfully scolding type of language that will be needed to get the message to sink in for those seeking magic ranking elixirs - is text.

Yes, we can specifically find images, videos, and yadda yadda yadda, if they are indeed helpfully labeled and we go looking for them. Universal and blended search will include these in results, too.

That being said, newbies to search still overfocus on the zen of labeling and ranking, even when it comes to pages, sites, and presences which are a largely empty vessels.

For search engines to find and rank and care about you - you've got to have a strategy to go ahead and create that (still largely textual, written, compelling, relevant, useful) content. Seems obvious, right? Apparently, not to everyone.

This reminds me of the very recent post by Vanessa Fox where she expresses skepticism about Google being "better" at "crawling Flash." Tain't nothin' wrong with animations, and someday heck yeah, wouldn't it be nice if the technology got better at OCR, image recognition, and mind-reading. But for now, all you're doing is sort of better-labeling and better-handling what is really, in the end, still an empty vessel when it comes to the core rank-and-feature-textual-content ethos of search engines as narrated by Singhal. The indignation expressed by some of the commenters on Fox's post indicates that the message hasn't really sunk in. People like to think, hope -- even demand! -- that search engines should care about empty pages that people merely label. (Sorry for calling all your ponderous Flash introduction homepages "empty." That's just the way I feel. Hoping that'll get noticed on search engines because you spent a bunch of cash making an animation... well, that's just a cop-out. Is it really content?)

Now, as before, first-party-metadata-only reasons to rank and feature pages and sites are weak: it comes back to the fact that people lie about the value and relevancy of their own pages, and everyone wants to "rank high." Slightly better handling of non-textual content doesn't change that. The shortage of compelling textual content continues, in spite of a sea of tens of billions of thin, uninteresting pages; that shortage is especially acute among companies just beginning to dip toes in the water of "how am I going to rank on the search engines,"and those revisiting how to "spruce up" their flagging rankings. Would that there were a quick fix.

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