Being Search-Boxed to Death

If you want to drive a nail into a piece of wood, you reach for a hammer, not a screwdriver. In other words, use the right tool, and you’ll get the right results. And the same holds true for search engines.

General-purpose search engines are wonderful tools. You can search for entertainment, news, sports, company, and many other types of information and most often find what you are looking for. Like a Swiss Army knife, general-purpose search engines can do many different jobs. Nevertheless, your results might be better if you turned to a vertical tool.

And this may just be the year that general-purpose search engines finally figure out a way to get the right vertical tools into the hands of their users. They’ve tried before, but some new efforts might succeed where other efforts have failed in the past.

For some time, general-purpose search engines have offered their own vertical tools to fulfill particular types of searches. For example, do a search on AltaVista, and the results page has little tabs above the search box intended to direct you to the proper search database, such as shopping search, images search, and news search.

In 1998, Lycos had a drop-down option right next to its search box so that you could choose from 11 different types of search options, including weather and stock quotes. At iWon, there are currently four different search choices below the search box on the home page.

The problem with vertical tools is that search engine users generally bypass all options and go directly to the main search box, as if a black hole were pulling them in against their will. For the most part, they don’t make use of selections in drop-down boxes or links to vertical search tools, when presented.

But if you give users too many options, they can feel overwhelmed. I think it was someone from Inktomi who once called this “death by a million search boxes,” or, as I like to paraphrase, “being search-boxed to death.” After all, how can search engines offer specialty search options without those options being ignored or, worse yet, considered clutter that gets in the way of the “real” results? Well, following some examples of what has worked and what hasn’t is a good place to start.

What to Avoid

For starters, let’s take AltaVista, whose home page was recently simplified and attracted praise for returning to its “pure” search roots.

But our memories are short. For AltaVista’s last major face-lift (in July 2000) was expressly touted by the service as having been designed to show AltaVista’s recommitment to search.

The Cleaner the Better

The big problem with AltaVista last year was that it overloaded its home page. There were so many links that it certainly didn’t look like a search engine. And it’s no surprise that it was praised as a search engine once again, soon after it eliminated the clutter. (Even though nothing had changed under the hood!)

I’d also like to see more of the vertical search services offered by the major general-purpose search engines made available through standalone Web sites. This makes it easier to direct people who specifically want these types of services. For example, need image searching? No problem — go to That’s much easier than saying, “Well, do a search, then look for wherever the images tab has moved to this week on the AltaVista results page, then click on that to get image results.”

Integrate Referral Links

What about the majority of searchers who still walk the same familiar road to the main search box? Well, AltaVista’s now experimenting with integrating referral links directly into the search results in a way that I hope other search engines will try.

Search for “DVD players” at AltaVista, and you’ll see that the first link above the numbered results says, “Compare Prices and Features on DVD Players” and leads to its shopping area. Now, the shopping search could be improved, but at least it is relevant to suggest visiting the shopping area for this type of search. Moreover, users are probably more likely to follow links that are in the main results list, like this link, rather than scattered elsewhere on the page.

Conduct Market Testing

AltaVista’s market testing backs this up. It tested both the “Consumer Electronics” link that you’ll also see on the results page versus the “Compare Prices” link that I’ve described. Testing results showed that since the Compare Prices link looks like a regular listing, usage was more likely.

According to Giguiere, “The results have been tremendous. Forty-four percent said they would click on the Compare Prices link, and only 17 percent said they would click on the other.”

The Holy Grail for Search Engines

The real Holy Grail for search engines is to detect the type of search we are doing and feed out more targeted results from appropriate databases. Search for a current news topic, and it may be that the majority of the main results will be pulled from the news database automatically, rather than from the main Web index.

We’re not there yet, but the idea appears to be moving forward. Consider last September when AltaVista announced it was going to be a “third generation” search engine. It was this automatic blending of vertical and regular search results that AltaVista was referring to. And the first delivery on the promise came last month with the integration of shopping links. And more vertical links are coming, with news being the next in line.

But there are two things to fear from the blending that’s underway. First, the search engine may not always correctly guess when we want results from a specialty search source — or it may select the wrong one. Fine-tuning and offering guidance on the results page, within the main listings area, should help.

Second, search engines may try to provide too many vertical links that redirect into their own content areas or to partner sites rather than to what we really want. Users will still appreciate some variety in their results, and if all routes lead into “walled garden” areas that the search engines operate or have a stake in, then their users may seek less controlling resources.

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