Monday, April 18, 2005

Search Products On The Supermarket Shelf

One thing I learned yesterday here in Seattle at MSN Search Champs camp which I find rather fascinating, is how techy people who really are deep into search databases (and there are some real smarties here in that area) know that because of the search algorithms the different providers use, there are big differences in the best known search engines -- Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, etc -- and therefore in the results.

As a less technical user, and in many ways a more typical user, I had never thought much about this, and in fact, didn't really know how different this made the databases and didn't consider it when I'd do a search. I mostly use Google, because I know and trust their brand name. I also use it because the user interface is so UNCLUTTERED and simple.

If I'm using my Yahoo email and there's a search box on their home page, I use that now and then for convenience's sake since I'm "in their neighborhood" and don't want to switch over to Google. I suppose I'm a hopelessly lazy search consumer, but who isn't?

If I made an analogy to this lack of transparency in search engines with a supermarket shelf full of 50 types of yogurt, or cookies, or soup, there is one striking difference with search products. I really don't know what's inside, but I gobble them right up anyway. When it comes to the foods I mentioned, I could most likely pick out the one with the lowest fat content, the one that has low or no carbs, or the highest salt content. I could turn the package around and verify my assumptions. I'd never pick one without looking at the contents.

That search engines just sit out there dumbly with no "Nutrition Facts" label seems insane to me. We really don't know what we're buying when we make a decision to search in Google or MSN or Amazon's A9. (Maybe all the geeks do, but "regular folks" don't.) I'm not saying I want to know the mind-numbing details of the search algorithms, but I would like some sort of product description of what I'm actually searching through to help me know what search engine I need.

How did we get to such a place -- a "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" -- land of Oz search landscape? I don't know, but I'd like to know how and why, and I'd especially like to know "what's inside" when I pick a search product.