Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Look-Ahead Searching: Looking to Cut Down Time-to-Answers

As noted by Robin Good and CNET News, search denizens are trying to come up with ever more clever ways to get people answers before they even complete a search query. First up: SurfWax's Look-Ahead, demoed on Robin Good's content, which can be used to provide a dynamic index of possible results matching your query on a given site as you type in your query. Tests showed that this capability highlighted many specific articles, but the tool is not able to move from specific articles to more general search results if you find a query that doesn't match. On to Yahoo's new Instant Search, a tool more designed to pop up answers to specific queries before you even complete a search. Punch in any valid U.S. street address and before you can get to the end it oftentimes pops up the exact map of the location. Neat. Other queries are less targeted. Type in "Boston" and you get the link to Boston.com, the Web site of The Boston Globe. Type in "Boston weather" and you get the current weather forecast instantly in a popup. But many queries yield no results whatsoever - very much a showcase. Finally we now have Google Suggest, a tool that will pop up a listing of possible queries that match your typing with the number of valid results that correspond. In some ways this is the most practical implementation in that each pop-up result is a query into itself, in effect becoming a taxonomy of queries that gets refined as you type along. In several tests there were always valid results. But it also brings us back to standard search results rather than answers, which is a little disappointing.

All of these approaches are interesting in their own ways but all show the difficulties of coming up with a truly robust service that can accurately anticipate what a searcher is going to want to look at for a specific purpose. With map coordinates, the Yahoo! service can save precious seconds if you're on the right track; but for more topic-oriented content it's likely to give a wrong steer. For a single-site search demoed in the LookAhead product there may or may not be enough content to provide a rich enough "instant taxonomy" to satisfy browsers. And for all of these tools there's no bookmarking capability: if I want to see updates to my query it's back to the typing bar. Moving so quickly from query to response also eliminates intermediate layers of context that could be useful to both the user and the publisher trying to monetize context. This kind of tool is likely to catch on in time as an optional method of accessing content, but we're still a healthy distance from tools that can truly move from questions to instant, authoritative answers across a wide body of content. What is "THE" answer to your question? Sometimes even we don't know the answer to that question, or learn new information in the process of finding an answer that helps us to refine the question into a new query altogether. Sometimes content is as much about the journey as the destination, after all...
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