Monday, March 2, 2009

Search Insider: Meeting Your Customers Halfway

Meeting Your Customers Halfway

When two parties are trying to communicate, which one is responsible for making it work? 

The business folks at the Project Management Institute will tell you that it's the "sender," the one transmitting the information. The "receiver" gets to sit by the pool with a fru-fru umbrella drink, getting her toes painted and snapping her fingers for the "message" to make it intact through the "noise" trying to block its way.

My fiancé used to be in sales. "In sales," he still says sometimes, "if your customer doesn't understand you, it's your fault."

I feel privileged to say that I'm not in sales, because in sales, as at the PMI, he's dead right. Unlike in the rest of the world (where listening is as much of a responsibility as talking), in sales you cannot assume that your customers are willing to lift a finger to meet you even one-eighth of the way.

Hence the phenomenal efforts of search engines to disambiguate intent, the subject of an in-depth article at SEO by the Sea two weeks ago. Bill Slawski does the work of trolling patent logs so you don't have to, and uncovers two applications by Yahoo for new methods of determining intent.

The first looks at how often a particular query term is used in conjunction with an "intent-indicating term" like "buy" or "reviews." If a keyword or phrase is used often enough with one of these intent-indicating terms, some of that indicated intent rubs off on it and becomes implied. If the phrase "buy cameras" gets sufficient use, the word "cameras" on its own will imply purchase intent.

The second patent application is for a method of figuring out which date the searcher intends when running a query that could refer to multiple dates (think "Olympics").

The need for search engines to improve their mindreading abilities exists because people can't, don't, and won't make the effort to articulate their needs more clearly. Most of us believe that this happens because searchers are lazy -- the fewer words they need to type, the better.

But I believe we all want to be understood by our search engines. In fact, Hitwise recently reported that the average number of words per query is on the rise, with queries of eight or more words growing a whopping 22% since December 2008.

No, the need to disambiguate isn't from lack of trying. It arises because most people don't think like search engines, and therefore don't realize that "Olympics" is ambiguous or that intent-indicating terms are their friends. That's why Google's "Did you mean..." feature is so wonderful: because customers are often trying their best, and Google is helping them succeed.

Back to my original point. When two people communicate, both are equally responsible for successfully understanding each other -- but if you focus on doing your own part as well as you possibly can, without assuming that the other person will put in any effort, you're far more likely to get somewhere.

The stats on query length show that people are doing what they can to be understood by their search engines. The patent applications show that the search engines are doing what they can to understand their people. The two parties are putting in the effort, and meeting each other halfway.

With that kind of commitment, search can only get better.

Kaila Colbin blogs for VortexDNA, whose technology can improve relevance for search engines, ecommerce sites, or any other recommendation service.

Search Insider for Monday, March 2, 2009:

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