Eight Search Engine "C" Changes
Pages: 1, 2

  1. Conflict

    In the early days of search engines, there was little conflict inherent in a web search. A search engine indexed materials from the Web, and searchers (hopefully) found what they were looking for. But now that search engine rankings can mean customers, and customers mean revenue, webmasters are much more aggressive about assuring that they've got a good ranking. Most of the time, webmasters go about the business of getting a good ranking honestly, but sometimes they don't.

    As I see it, there's a three-way conflict between search engine users today: there's the surfer, who just wants to find useful results; the webmasters, who want to rank as high in the results as possible (including the option of paying for inclusion or paying for sponsored results); and the search engines companies, who do not want to compromise the integrity of their index, but at the same time want to generate revenue. I'll address this a little later.

  2. Comprehension

    Let's face it, even with all of the advances in search engines, indexing is messy. Search engines don't have a way of understanding any more than the basic parts of a web page--that is the title, that is the URL, and that is the body. A search engine can't figure out the date on a news article, or a headline, or a quote.

    Considering how much progress search engines have made in other areas, I'm amazed that this low level of content understanding is still the case. What is it going to take to get search engines to understand more of the content on an indexed page? A special set of meta tags? Widespread use of XML? Something else?

  3. Cloak and Dagger (Mostly Cloak)

    An entire industry has sprung up around getting the best possible listing in search engine results. Some of the methods employed are perfectly acceptable to the search engines, while some of them are not. So search engine energy, which could be used to make ever-cooler and more beautiful search syntaxes with which I can experiment, has to go towards foiling the bad guys who want to usurp a search position to which they aren't entitled.

  4. Cyntaxes

    OK, I fudged a little on this last one. I'm referring, of course, to special syntaxes, the various ways that search engines let you narrow down your searches. Google, for example, will let you narrow your search by title, URL, or domain. However, while special syntaxes are useful to a searcher, they don't ensure the popularity of a search engine site. AltaVista, for example, has arguably more extensive special syntaxes than Google, but it doesn't mean that they're exactly raking in the visitors.

    Even though syntaxes quickly narrow down search results, it seems that sometimes the average searcher doesn't know enough about them. What can search engines do to publicize special syntaxes and make them easier to use? Which hitherto-unknown syntaxes would make it even easier for users to find what they're looking for? Why are date-based searches so different between different search engines?

Pondering the Changes

As I ponder these C changes, I keep in mind one thing: far from the simple interchange between site and searcher that it once was, search engines have become a hub of activity, with the addition of the interests of webmasters. Some hope to attract customers. Some hope to get their materials widely circulated. Some even want the materials of other web sites removed (due to copyright infringement, or other concerns).

The addition of this new group into the functioning concern of search engines will change their tenor considerably and generate tension. Search engines will have to consider ways to balance generating revenue (through pay-for- inclusion and other programs for webmasters) with keeping search results as relevant and useful for searchers as possible.

I predict a change in our expectations of search engines, which will slacken that tension: we may become used to the idea of search engines offering pay-for-inclusion, and have no objection to clearly labeled, sponsored results appearing at the top of a page (the latter appears to have already happened). Banner ads and other graphics-based advertising will eventually slough off and disappear as one way to keep the good will of searchers (this has already happened at, which, with great fanfare, has stopped using banner advertising and pop-up windows).

Technical advances in search engines will still take place, but with an eye towards serving both searchers and web wranglers. Note that Google's latest offering--shopping search engine Froogle--is a great way for surfers to shop, but it's also built with a back end that makes it easy for merchants to submit data feeds. And with Google's Catalogs site, visitors can browse through a thousand mailboxes' worth of slick pages. Here, Google's got a perfect opportunity to sell catalog companies on a way to connect with interested consumers, or to provide reports that detail what the most popular searches are for services (and what the most popular catalogs are).

As someone who spends a lot more time on the searcher aspect of search engines than the webmaster aspect, I'm naturally a little concerned about these changes. But at the same time, I understand that they can't be helped. Search engines must make revenue. If they don't make money, eventually they don't exist, and then I'd spend all my time reading and clicking The Really Big Button That Doesn't Do Anything. If search engines can break ground with generating revenue from webmasters, maybe eventually they'll expand to offering paid services to searchers (this topic, "Search Engine Services I Want to Pay For," is a whole other article).

In short, there's a lot happening, and it doesn't look to be slowing down any time soon. In this series of articles, I'm going to take a look at the developments, the possibilities, and the things that drive me absolutely crazy about search engines and online data collections. I'm going to rant and rave, but I hope to teach as well. Thanks.

Tara Calishain is the creator of the site, ResearchBuzz. She is an expert on Internet search engines and how they can be used effectively in business situations.

O'Reilly & Associates recently released (February 2003) Google Hacks.

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