Searching the Unexpected

Maybe I’m the only one, but it seems like the internet is getting smaller every day. There was a time when the internet felt like a giant room of unopened doors. Not unlike the door warehouse in Monster’s Inc. Each door led to a spiraling web of tangential information.

As the internet has continued to balloon in size, the search engine has become the primary way of interacting with the internet, and data in general. One might even say that search is eating the world.

You search your phone, your friends, your photos. Everything.

Search is great. It is unparalleled at jumping directly to content that you know exists. But it doesn’t allow for the same free-style exploration as the early web web did in the days of directories and – shudder – site rings.

Today, there seems to be little incentive for the big search engines to route people to the obscure, the niche, the interesting.

Search is often a black box. Either what you’re looking for is there, or it isn’t. When a search engine doesn’t work, users are left scratching their heads.

Search is often self reinforcing. The more a search engine learns about your interests, and habits the less new things it will show you.

In other words it is hard to search for something that you don’t know exists.

Even our media gets filtered through the same channels. Predominantly, RSS feed readers have been replaced with news aggregators.

Imagine the process of buying a house, for example. When looking for a house I’m most likely to search for a specific address, or possibly loan rate comparisons.

But I’m also potentially interested in:

  • The current real estate market & climate
  • How to avoid common home buying mistakes
  • A glossary of the top real estate terms
  • The average home sale price in my area
  • How quickly homes are disappearing from the market

Now if your job is to index everything on the internet, then it’s hard to be this specific. But adding information like this could be in the best interest of a property sales application. Even if some of the content is pulled in from other sources, aggregating domain specific knowledge could benefit your users.

Even the big search engines add information and recommendations to their results in limited ways.

  • Showing the time and weather when you search for a city
  • Displaying a carousel of local movie posters when searching for showtimes
  • Displaying related organizations or people to the items you are searching for

The more specific your search engine is, the more opportunity there is to break away from plain search results and introduce an experience that is finely tuned to your audience.

The reality is that most of the time search needs to be optimized simply for recall and precision. Sometimes when building very specialized search applications however it can be nice to introduce a bit of playfulness into the results. Tell me something I didn’t know about the topic I’m looking for. Not in a way that obscures the primary objective, but that adds value to the experience.

Currently search results simply list a bunch of available destinations but given enough intelligence search pages have the potential to function more like maps. Maps that give users context, and a progression of resources between points A and B.

Hopefully you’ll keep this in mind if you come across a search project that might benefit from a bit of serendipity.

Mix things up. Search doesn’t have to be boring.