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Monday, September 20, 2004
A Dialogue On Search Engines That Dialogue
A topic being tossed around on other blogs is whether a search engine can be designed to hold a dialogue with the end user, asking questions to refine the query until the correct answer is reached. First, read Greg Linden's post, then head over to Jeremy Zawodny's response, and finally read John Battelle's opinion, before coming back here.

We all on the same page? Okay.

The first issue is whether or not this should happen. I say, of course it should. As long is it is unobtrusive, like Google's spell-check, then why not code it in, if it actually works. However, this, more than many other features, under the category of "If it don't work, don't do it". If a user sees lots of irrelevant questions, users will be trained quickly to ignore them, much like the vast majority of internet users learned to completely shut out flashing banner ads.

Second, can it be done? I believe it can. Google's spell-checker works on the brilliant idea that since most words are properly spelled most of the time, a search engine can use the way words are spelled on the web to discover the proper spelling. This is why any word common on the internet, even nonsense words like n00b and words from foreign languages, will be corrected by Google. A similar concept based on a smart algorithm can work for "bad searches".

When a user users an incorrect search, the user typically notices immediatly. If a user wants to find the best of anything, and types in a Guaranteed To Fail search like "best cars", the user should notice the bad results immediatly and change it to "car reviews". When Google notices a pattern of the searches typing in a search, and immediatly typing in another, similar search without clicking on any results, that is cause to add a "Did you mean...?" to the Search Engine Results Page. A pattern of GTF searches only needs to be small to be useful, since after all, if they are useless, no one will click on them. A "Did you mean...?" result can be dropped if a large number of GTF searches ignore the "Did you mean...?" and move on to other searches, searches which will become the new "Did you mean...?"s until another better result comes along. It isn't a perfect system, but even if the results are only 15% relevant, that will be an enourmously useful feature. I'm sure Google's PhDs can build the algorithm that pulls it off.

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