What Personalization Means to Search

I originally wrote the following article a couple of years ago for publication at Website Magazine. It presents one way of thinking about the evolution of search and search engines, and I thought it might be a good idea to share it here as well. I’ve added a few very minor updates to the article.

Search engines have come a long way since their modest beginnings — although you may not have noticed. The major engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing guard their search secrets closely, so one can never be absolutely certain how they are operating. But they are evolving, and personalization seems to be the wave of the future.

Search engines have already developed through two major stages and now may be on the verge of a third generation. The first stage was based simply on matching keywords in documents — where the same results were shown to all searchers, regardless of who they were or their original search intentions. The second stage, where we may be now, examines how searchers interact with the search engine to predict their intent. Finally, the third stage will attempt to consider the actual interests of searchers then recommend pages accordingly.

Stage One- Keyword Matching

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Forget Search, Yahoo May Start Helping You Find Parking Spaces

At some point in the not distant future, Yahoo search will be replaced with Microsoft’s search service Bing.

Exactly how that might impact the other services that Yahoo offers isn’t really clear at this point, but it’s likely that Yahoo will still offer many of the portal services that it provides to its visitors now.

Will Yahoo Local and Yahoo Maps be affected? Again, that isn’t really clear. I’ve been keeping an eye out for patent filings from search engines for a while now, and I do still see many published by Yahoo that provide some interesting possibilities, even outside of search.

Take one Yahoo patent filing published today, for instance:

Real Time Detection of Parking Space Availability
Invented by Amit Umesh Shanbhag, Glen Ames, and Philip Aaronson
Assigned to Yahoo
US Patent Application 20100007525
Published January 14, 2010
Filed July 9, 2008

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Finding State Capitol Buildings in Google Maps

I like old buildings and local history, and learning about how towns and areas have grown and developed, and I put together a little project that might give me a quick glimpse of some of the history of each state in the US.

It seemed like an easy task to start with, creating a Google My Maps display of the location of the Capitol Building for each State in the US. I was wrong. It wasn’t easy. One problem was possibly that the place shown in the image below is known as “The Capitol Building” may not have helped. But there were other problems as well.

Google Maps image of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

I did manage to create a map of the US Capitol Buildings, though I’m considering it to still be a work in progress. But what I learned making the map confirmed some thoughts about the limitations of search and search engines, and some of the problems I’ve seen with Google Maps and with govenment web sites.

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The Lost Google ‘I’m Feeling Bored’ Button

You may be familiar with the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button that appears under the search box on Google’s home page. Enter a search query into the search box, and click on the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button, and Google will deliver you to the top result for your query. That button has been on the front of Google since the very early days of the search engine.

A patent granted to Google this week would have added an “I’m Feeling Bored” button on Google Calendar. An image from the patent shows the button at the top of a page where you can perform an event search, specifying keywords, a geographical area, and a time period. If you click the button without entering any of that information, the event search might try to find events for you based upon your past query history.

A Google events search engine interface for Google Calendar showing results for a search for Giants games in San Francisco during a week in September of 2006.

Under the process described in the patent, when you search for an event, that event might be one that Google found when crawling the web, in a news article, through a syndicated feed, or from other sources. Events can cover a wide range of activities, including artistic performances, sporting events, lectures, and auctions.

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How Google Might Enable Property Owner Advertising in Streetviews Images

Imagine that you are the owner of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in Manhattan, New York, and you have a marquee banner that lets passersby know what performances are currently taking place on your stage, as well as posters advertising coming attractions.

Google has captured images of your theatre for Google Maps StreetViews, and have included a number of images that you may have uploaded via Google’s Local Business Center, or that others have taken of the area around the theater.

An image from Google’s Streetview of the theatre shows at least four billboard posters on the front wall of the building, which can be seen by viewers.

a Google Streetview image of the Eugene O'Neill theatre showing posters advertising coming shows.

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Have You Ever Seen Delicious Quick Links?

When you view a set of search results, sometimes you’ll see some additional links for more pages on a site included within a single search result for a page. This often happens when a search engine considers the query that you used to be a “navigational” query, where the intent behind your search is to find a specific page on a site.

For instance, if you want to visit the WordPress homepage, instead of typing “wordpress.org” or “wordpress.com” into the address bar of your browser, you might type “wordpress” into the search box on a toolbar. Chances are, you are intenting to go to the wordpress home page instead of finding sites that mention “wordpress.”

The search engines don’t always follow the same patterns in delivering you to pages, but there are a number of similarities. For example, searching at Google for “wordpress” will show you the home page for “wordpress.org” at the top of the search results and also provides you with a list of links to pages on the site, including the page where you can download the software, and the support forums. Searching for “wordpress” at Yahoo delivers the home page for hosted wordpress blogs at “wordpress.com” at the top of the results, and offers additional links for different categories of blogs found at the site.

Why does Google show you the software site, and Yahoo show you the wordpress hosted site? Good question. There are many questions about how the different search engines handle navigational queries, and how they determine which site links or quick links to show under them.

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How Google Might Let you Shop by Camera Phone

A few months ago, I stopped at a store to search for a new phone. The place I stopped at offered a couple of dozen different models of phones with different features, and I narrowed my search down to three or four that listed features on their boxes that sounded interesting. Usually, I’ll look online before I buy something like this, but I needed a new phone, and wanted to get one quickly.

I pulled out my mobile phone in the middle of the shopping aisle, and started to search for reviews of the choices of phones in front of me. It would have been great if I could just take a picture of them, and had more information about them come up automatically, including reviews and alternative prices elsewhere so that I could compare costs as well.

A patent application from Google describes a way of using a mobile phone to take pictures of items, and sending them to the search engine to have it search through Google Product Search as well as other web sites, to find prices and reviews and other information about those items, and make a purchase online if you would like to. The images could be of a shirt that a friend is wearing, or a bicycle that you see parked on a street, or a package on a store shelf.

The search could be based upon the actual image itself, as well as words that might appear on a box for the image or other information. The information that you receive could include such things as technical specifications, nutritional value for food items, country of origin, prices from a number of vendors, and more. If the phone was GPS enabled, Google might see that I was in the middle of a specific store, and look up the online catalog of the store to show me that item and other items offered by the store.

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How Google May Expand Searches Using Synonyms for Words in Queries

When someone searches the Web, one of the challenges that they often face is using the right words in their search to find what that they are looking for.

Search engines usually rank pages based upon how prominently terms from a searcher’s query appear on those pages, and if a searcher doesn’t use the right words in their search, they may miss the pages and the information that they would like to find.

For example, someone looking for web hosting in the City of Ft. Wayne may type the query [Web hosting Fort Wayne] into a search engine, and not see many pages about hosting in that location because the City is usually referred to as “Ft. Wayne” rather than “Fort Wayne.” I find myself frequently challenged by this kind of problem when looking for information about Washington, D.C., or the District of Columbia, or DC.

A patent granted to Google this week explores how the search engine might expand the search terms that searchers use to include synonyms in searches, to make it easier for searchers to locate information on the Web. In the Ft. Wayne example, this could mean that Google would look for pages on the Web that were relevant for both [web hosting Fort Wayne] and [web hosting Ft. Wayne].

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Getting Information about Search, SEO, and the Semantic Web Directly from the Search Engines