Google Not Best for All Searches

When you’re looking for information, do you go to an encyclopedia or a specialized book? If you answered “Neither; I check the Internet,” don’t click away. The question has more relevance for the major search engines, particularly Google, than you might think.

I still use Google as my default search engine, and so do many others trying to find information on the Internet. Online research and rankings site comScore recently released figures that revealed the U.S. traffic rankings of sites competing in the search marketplace. For the month of October 2007, Google held on to a major lead. Users performed 6.1 billion core searches at Google’s sites, a figure that represents 58.5 percent of the search market. The second place search company, Yahoo, claims less than a quarter of the search market.

Can millions and millions of Internet users be wrong? Yes and no. The truth of the matter is, not all searches are created equal. Google, however, treats them as if they are. That’s not surprising; frankly, with as many searchers as Google sees using its main search page, it can’t really do otherwise. So every search is treated as if it is looking for general information, even though the user’s intentions may be to get a very specific piece of information.

Uncovering a user’s intention remains one of the most difficult things for search engines to accomplish. If I put the phrase “Beach Boys” into a search engine, do I want information about the band’s history? Am I looking for somewhere to buy their music? Do I want tickets to their next concert? Or am I hoping to find (possibly pirated) videos of the group in performance?

The answers to those questions matter. Search engines are all about putting the most relevant results at the top. Which links are most relevant to the searcher depends on which question they really have in mind when they put those keywords into the search box. We can’t just ask the question; we have to use the right keywords and hope the search engine – and the sites – give us an answer that matches the real question we had. Some search engines are better at answering certain kinds of questions than others. If you’ve tried Google for certain queries and found it wanting, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Patrick Schaber was recently inspired to check out the major search engines for information on Tony Bennett, a performer who’s been delighting audiences even longer than the Beach Boys. He felt let down by the results of a search in Google. Sure, Tony Bennett’s official site was at the top, “but with all the talk of Universal Search I was expecting a very rich media-type experience with music, video, news and more.”

As it turned out, he could indeed get what he thought of as the Universal Search experience – but he had to go to Yahoo for it. “From the nice results box featuring Tony Bennett, I’m able to listen to music clips right there, watch video clips (right on the SERP!), get a link to the official Tony Bennett site or click on links to check out albums, photos and more.” He then checked MSN Live and Ask. MSN seemed to respond in the same way that Google did, while Ask’s approach was closer to Yahoo’s – if anything, it was even more complete, thanks to Ask’s separate panes.

It occurred to me, though, that this was a people search. What happens if you ask a people search engine the same question? I’ve reviewed Spock previously; it’s a people search engine with a social element. When I used it to search for Tony Bennett, the singer was actually the third result returned. While the entry itself contained a lot of links and a certain amount of information, I couldn’t listen to music clips or watch video clips from it; Tony Bennett’s own web site wasn’t even the first one listed! It’s a sad bit of irony that Yahoo and Ask, which function as general search engines, did better than a vertical search engine at this task.

But that simply indicates that there is room for improvement. Remember what I said earlier about the different kinds of questions that could lurk behind the simple use of keywords in a search box? Yahoo’s and Ask’s approaches answer as many of those questions as possible right on the very first page. That’s why their results are more relevant than Google’s. In fact, a user might not even have to click through to any of the results to get the answer they want, depending on the question. As Schaber observed, “I’m not sure I’ll need to know anything more about Tony Bennett after the Ask.com experience.”

So we’ve seen a hint here that Google doesn’t deliver the most relevant results for all types of searches. And it’s possible that some vertical search engines may not be much better – or at least that they don’t deliver the kind of experience you can get from some of the general search engines. So where do you go for specific kinds of queries?

I don’t have a scientific study that can answer that question. If anyone knows of such a study, please let me know in the comments to this article; I’d love to see the results. The best thing I can offer is a blog post from SEO-Space in which a few searchers – folks around their office, family and friends – were asked to perform certain types of searches in the four major search engines (Google, Yahoo, Windows Live, and Ask) and rate them based on how well they like the results they received.

The sample size could not have been large enough for statistical purposes, to say nothing of the lack of demographics information. Even so, everyone did the same kinds of searches in the same four search engines, so there was at least some scientific method involved. Regardless, the results were suggestive: Google was the number one search engine with everyone only for searches on a general topic of interest. For at least one type of search, in fact – searching for a branded product of interest – Google scored dead last, delivering only news stories for such items as a Toyota Tacoma or an Apple iPhone.

The participants in the “study” performed six different types of searches:

  • A general product search (for such items as a digital camera or mobile phone).
  • A specific product search (for branded products like Toshiba laptops).
  • An entertainment search, which involved finding information on movie releases, band tour dates, and the like.
  • A search for a famous person such as an actor, athlete or musician.
  • A search for a particular destination, in this case a city.
  • A general topic of interest, such as apple pie recipes.

So if Google didn’t come out on top in most of those searches, which search engine did? Believe it or not, it was Ask. The volunteers chose Ask as giving the best results in four out of the six types of searches performed. The participants seemed to appreciate the comprehensiveness of Ask’s results. For at least one of the search types, they did not like the fact that Wikipedia listings were displayed near the top of Google’s results.

Google may be the best search engine when it comes to matching a user’s intent with the right results for general searches. But as with other forms of research, a user may want something more specific than a general encyclopedia to answer his questions. Sure, you can find apple pie recipes on Google, but can you find one that will satisfy Uncle Martin’s sweet tooth AND cousin Kate’s allergies? That takes a bit more digging, and some search engines are prepared to use a number of approaches to make the search a little less painful.

I’ve already mentioned Ask’s approach as far as getting as much varied information as possible on the first page of results. A difference in interface can make a real difference in experience. Google and other major search engines also engage in personalized search in an effort to deliver what is relevant for particular users. This kind of search bases the results returned on a user’s search history and what sites they’ve clicked on in the past.

Some search engines are starting to base some of their results on a user’s location. For example, a user searching for sushi restaurants will find just those in their own area. The cousin to this in paid search results, of course, is geo-targeting, and could actually save advertisers some money by showing ads only when the search is truly relevant and likely to bring in (local) business.

That makes sense; if I’m looking for a sushi restaurant and I live in Plantation, I probably don’t want to drive all the way to West Palm Beach for dinner. On the other hand, as an experienced searcher I already build my searches to take that into account; I’m more likely to search for “sushi Plantation” when I want to dine out rather than simply “sushi” (which I might search for if I wanted to learn how to make sushi).

Some analysts think that the trend to which Google is most vulnerable, however, is the vertical search engines that are cropping up. If you have a medical problem, you can search for information about it at a health-focused search engine; if you want to buy someone a gift, you can check out a shopping search engine; and on and on. Others think that social networking and social search engines will chip away at Google’s market share. I’m not convinced that users will want to go to lots of different search engines for different kinds of queries; if they can go to one search engine that answers most of the questions they intend to ask, they’ll prefer to do that. So far that’s Google, but Ask’s approach is showing that it doesn’t have to be. The wise SEO will note where their traffic is coming from – and be prepared to change their optimization based on the search engine sending them the most traffic.

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