Search & Sensibility

January 2nd, 2008 · 2 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Since Santa didn’t bring me a Kindle (probably fair on his part since I didn’t bake him any cookies), I have no choice but to worry about the future of the world. Or rather publishing. Or rather aspects of publishing. To sorta paraphrase Captain Jack Harkness, the 21st century is when everything changes, we have to be ready for it right now.

Ask your mother to try your search engine.

To my mind, the most important aspect of our future (media) culture is discoveribility. If you can’t be found, you won’t be found. This means, plain and simple, that — until something better comes along — search is the god of discoverability (hey, if the Greeks can create a pantheon, so can I). Content must be created in a way that is searchable.

I am a Google user. I am a Google user because it is the search engine that works best for me. The way I enter search terms and the way Google returns search terms works much like an old married couple. That is to say, generally we’re in sync with the sometimes hiccup. And when that happens, I might look for satisfaction elsewhere.

I deplore bad search. Example: I was at Amazon yesterday. I was working on a project and I knew for a fact that there was a novel named Desire. All I needed was a publication date — Amazon is a warehouse of book meta-data. So, okay, I type “desire” into the search box (I was fairly certain there was only one book with this title, but just in case, I omitted the author’s name — I wanted to capture the greatest population possible because that’s how the project was).

First pass, various results for my search criteria. The book I sought was — not kidding here — not even one of the possible results. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks was a top ten result. Love that album, can pretty much sing in the Dylan key, but huh? Amazon says it’s showing the “top results”. Okay. When I narrowed my search to only books with that title, wow, I found my book 30 pages in (the things I do for you). Found another book with the same title earlier one (around page 21). And found myself amazed at how Amazon determined “relevance”. If you’re asking for my expert analysis, I’d say it’s a random thing.

I don’t like Amazon’s search functionality. Never have. They created a store that’s too big for the search engine they use. If I find myself in a situation where I don’t know the exact title and author, I find my results are not always optimal. When I’m frustrated, I go elsewhere. If you’re trying to sell me something or hold my attention, you’re cringing right now.

Most publisher websites have lame search (ditto: author sites). Don’t be offended — most websites have lame search. It’s like, wow, let them find stuff? If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, the results are often wacky. If I’m searching for a book called Desire, you know, I want the results to pop up within a few screens. I went the full 30 because I do a lot in the name of science.

(For what it’s worth, Google’s search results were not all that great, but I expected that, given the breadth and depth of what was being searched.)

It is, I suppose, human nature to want to possess objects. And, for so many, that includes content. I am watching the digitization of content with great interest (obviously; I mean, what else would I do with my life? Oh right.), and I am greatly concerned about the move toward proprietary systems and, even more so, the opposition to making that content searchable. Not just little tidbits of content determined by committee. All content.

By all search engines.

While previously I mentioned Google in the specific, it is essential to note that “google” has become a verb. When I talk about search, I am talking about the world of search. Just as I am devoted to Google (until the next Google — and I firmly believe there will be a next Google), I have friends, most of whom are non-technical in nature, who are equally devoted to other search engines. If you, for even an hour, watch average people using the Internet to find things, you will, depending on your skill level, be amazed or appalled. I am generally appalled.

I know a guy who scrolls through his unorganized bookmarks to find the link to Google to begin his search.

Discoverability means being findable. You must — must — make sure your content is findable. I’m sorry, but all that value you perceive is nothing unless the content is usable. To be usable, it must be findable. To be findable, it must be search-friendly. I say Google-friendly, but I really mean all possible search. The days of closed loops have passed us by. If you can’t give me what I want, then I will go somewhere else.

And the thing is, you cannot control the somewhere else. While this post was inspired by my own ongoing frustration (buy me a drink, I’ll complain for hours), it was reinforced by this thought from Peter Brantley:

The presentation of other people’s content (belonging to publishers, authors, and the public) within Google Book Search [GBS] becomes an experience owned by Google, and engineered in a manner opaque to others, out of others’ control, with complex attendant issues in how Google intermingles GBS results with externally harvested material. Most importantly, from the perspective of publishers and authors, there is very little they can do to control the discovery and presentation experience. Even ascertaining whether the results are flat across providers is beyond the realm of assured knowledge for any one content owner; Random vs. Harper vs. public domain — no one can have definite knowledge of what is ranked, and in what manner, thus incapacitating innovation.

Once upon a time, media controlled the media. Today, you have to understand that you don’t even control the conversation. You can, however, stack the deck. First step is understanding that search is not isolated, it’s not controlled, and it’s not yours to own. Then, try your search engine. Try your search engine like a real person, not someone who works for the company. Better yet, ask your mother to try your search engine.

Once you get over the need for a second martini, you just might learn something.fg

File Under: The Future of Publishing

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