In a poll released in early May by Harris Interactive, consumers rated which industries they felt were doing a good (or bad) job of serving their consumers.
Supermarkets ranked number one in terms of consumer satisfaction with 92% of respondents saying supermarkets were doing a good job, as opposed to 8% who didn’t. Computer hardware companies were second with an 84% favorable to 10% unfavorable ratio.
Search engines held a respectable 7th place with 79% favorable and 11% unfavorable. (Not surprisingly, Tobacco and Oil companies came in last with two out of every three people saying they did a poor job.)
What can a search engine learn from a supermarket? Categorization.
When you walk into a grocery store you are presented many aisles – items divided in categories. Like foodstuffs are put together with signs in each aisle telling customers what is there. The end of each aisle has other items that could be related or just sale items. In search terms, I think of those as the pay-per-click listings. Easy to skip if you want, but sometimes very helpful.
Search engines have failed to grasp this concept. Most engines present information in a single, long list that spans many pages. That would be the equivalent of a grocery store having a single, long aisle. Shoppers would find that tedious and unhelpful, yet search engines have stuck to that very motif for years.
Search professionals fight for the first 10 spots for any keyword search. Statistics show that most searchers don’t view results on the second page. That makes sense, if you think about it. People are looking at what is up front, even if it is not particular relevant.
If I was a producer, I would want my products at the very front of the aisle because I know that the things up front would tend to be noticed more, even if they weren’t relevant to what the customer really wanted.
Look at this research by Thorsten Joachims, et al., at Cornell University [Link to PDF] and perfectly summed up by Jakob Nielson. After typing in a search query, a majority of searchers clicked the very first link returned even if it was not relevant.
This is why categorization becomes important.
Teoma beat everyone with this concept with their Results, Refine, and Resources method of listing results. While I would argue the results of the refine and resources are not always helpful, they have the right idea. They are trying to find ways to present relevant information to their users in a way that is also quick to browse – just like the signs hanging in the supermarket aisle.
Zoom with Jeeves
In late May, Ask Jeeves introduced Zoom, which they describe as the "next-generation related-search tool that gives users suggestions to narrow or expand their searches." They also claim it is the only search technology that clusters the web into topical communities in real-time.
It displays three sets of related results on the right side of the page next to the search listings. The first set lets you "Zoom in" or narrow your search, the next set lets you "Zoom out" by offering listings that are wider but still conceptually related, while the third and least useful of the sets offers names of people that are related to the original search.
I have also had mixed results with Ask Jeeves’ Zoom tool. But I applaud the effort and hope it blossoms and becomes more wide spread. Hopefully over time, they will spend as much time refining their categorization tools as they spend on their ranking algorithms. Then search engines will be more useful than supermarkets.