Why search doesn't work

More and more people are getting their information from the Internet. But intuitive, convenient Internet search capability isn’t quite there yet.

One big problem is that search is a one-way street, not a two-way conversation using natural language. The search engine won’t ask to clarify your search in any meaningful way and can’t make intuitive suggestions that would come naturally to a human being.

The “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought…” algorithms on sites like iTunes are at least making some headway on that score. But then there’s the odd, infamous story a while back about Wal-Mart apologizing for its website algorithm directing customers buying “Planet of the Apes and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” DVDs to also check out DVDs with African-American themes.

Human beings would have caught the problem instantly – indeed, human beings did. They just weren’t Wal-Mart employees.

Then there’s the problem of not being able to do multiple searches for different articles at the same time. And the search engine certainly can’t collate the pertinent information within the articles you’ve searched to make it even easier to find what you’re looking for. On top of that, you can’t conveniently save the past results of your searches to access them from anywhere. Try accessing your “Favorites” on your buddy’s laptop.

Does it have to be this way? Perhaps Internet search could be more like the real world, where intuition and inside knowledge can produce a result even better than the searcher might have hoped for. Imagine, in the real world, a guy walks into a clothing store…

Customer: “I need a shirt… Maybe something in blue or gray.”
Salesperson: “OK, you mean something formal, for a suit?”
Customer: “Yes, that’s right. One shirt for work, the other for a night out.”
Salesperson: “We’ve got a great selection of dress shirts right here in the colors you mentioned. I think green would also look nice on you. Here are some ties as well that would go well with the shirts. Our pants are just over there. I can show you if you have a minute.”
Customer: “Thank you! You’ve been a great help.”
Salesperson: “You’re entirely welcome. By the way, you’ve been in one of our stores before, haven’t you? In Texas?”
Customer: “Why, yes! How did you…”
Salesperson: “You bought a brown jacket in that store a few weeks ago that would be a perfect match for this sweater we have on sale. It’s fifty per cent off today. Interested?”

OK, maybe that last part is a little creepy, but you get the idea. A really effective Internet search engine would be able to offer all of this convenience.

Indeed, wouldn’t it be great if a search engine could actually connect you with a live expert who you could interact with you? Food for thought.