Search is easy. Understanding isn’t.

Why do we assume that because search tools can find occurrences of words on the web, that they can divine what we intended when we entered the term?

Seth Godin posits that search is hard, because when he did a Google image search for 1964, one of the images was Soaring magazine. He doesn’t mention that it is a picture of the November 1964 issue of the magazine.

If I walk up to you, never having met you before, and say “1964″ to you, what is the first thing you would think of? My brother was born in 1964, so that’s the first thing I would think of, though you may think of something completely different. Now what are the first ten things you would think of? That’s a pretty reasonable analogy of what you are asking of Google.

Now add into that the fact that Google has only the words on the page to work with. No understanding of what the pages mean, or relations between them. Google can only work with the content it has available to it, and the relative number of occurrences of that content. With that, Google does an admirable job of returning images about and related to 1964.

Search is easy. Given the term “1964″, Google easily returns about 735,000 images. It may not return exactly what we are looking for, but that is a problem of understanding – the understanding of what we were looking for. It simply is not reasonable to assume that a single word search can discern what we want, when humans couldn’t do it either.


One thought on “Search is easy. Understanding isn’t.

  1. On a recent edition of NPR’s Tech podcast – that I now can’t find (!) – they reported on a new search technology that will examine your data – a la Google desktop – to provide word-association context to your searches. The word association would presumably then be paired with existing page ranking to pull up a ranked list of pages that matched the word / phrase context.

    It’s the smartest idea in search I’ve heard in a while …

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