Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The Elements of Search, Part Six


What’s Missing From Search Engines

As I’ve said before in this series, search engines lack the ability to do an iterative search. This is how it works: try one word, if you like the results, add another; if not try something else. And so on for each additional word that gets you closer to your target. Most importantly, the number of retrieved hits keeps shrinking! But even this approach is not helpful if search engines are not accurate. Why return links that have little or nothing to do with the words you seek?

After accuracy, the most important criteria for information is timeliness. You might think this was obvious. Not so if you use a search engine. If you request a search for hits in the past 24 hours, why would you not want to see them with the most recent first? Yet, search engines don’t, whether the time span is a day, a week, or even a year; For some unfathomable reason, search engines think the dates on the returned page links are of equal importance—as though timeliness was completely irrelevant. In fact, timeliness should be the default.

Regarding timeliness, search engines allow the user to limit the results to a period of time (24 hours, a week, a month, etc.). They do, but only for the current session. I have yet to encounter a search engine that allows users to permanently set search parameters (until altered by the user). The only conceivable reason for this lack is that search engines want less control for the user.

Another aspect of timeliness we don’t get to control is when we’re searching for answers to computer-related problems. Not only do I want most recent first, I’d like to exclude pages that don’t supply expert opinions (e.g., forums). Why can’t the search engine experts give us this capability?

Why can’t search engines be more specific? For some obscure reason, exact matches are often the most difficult to find. I once found a quote through an inexact search, but when I tried to find it as an exact match, the search engine said, “did not match any documents.” Yet, I had copied the quote, exactly, from the document that search engine had given me. Baffling.

While we’re looking for exact matches, why can’t search engines provide a special method for finding proper names? Looking for people is one of the most common searches. But searching exactly for first name plus last name doesn’t find pages where there’s a middle name or initial in between.

In the end, it’s clear search engines want to limit our ability to search exactly—and accurately and timely. As I said before, their goal is not to provide answers quickly so we can get back to productive work. Their goal is simply to keep us searching. If you still doubt this, then tell me why we can’t do a case sensitive search?

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