London Car Bombs: The Big Fat Search Failure

I was in London last night right smack in the area where a large bomb was defused this morning. Naturally, I was curious about what exactly had happened. I hit the news sites, but then I wondered what would happen for those searching generally for information using search engines. Both Google and in particular have promised that their new search interfaces should naturally get us relevant news information. Both failed, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s take a look.

To test, I looked for [london bombs]. I think that’s a reasonable way many people would be seeking information about what happened today. I did try to see if there was a spike for this query via Google Hot Trends for today, but nothing showed at all. I assume this is due how How Trends filters out some hot queries, which I assume in particular tries to keep news related queries from overwhelming the trend reports. There’s nothing at all related to London showing right now, which I find hard to believe (I’m sure people are looking for this information out of the normal pattern). It also makes Hot Trends seem lame.

Google’s new Google Universal Search is supposed to magically make news results appear when appropriate. Well, nothing newsworthy makes it onto the page currently. Consider these results for london bombs:

Google & London Bombs

I can’t say enough how these results underscore the importance for a universal search or blending search system that actually works. The results are dominated by references to the London bombings that happened two years ago. Right now, at this moment, those bombings are NOT what I’d wager most people searching on Google for [london bombs] are after. They want to know about today’s bombs — and Google doesn’t deliver. The most relevant thing on the page is an ad for, which ironically leads to these results at Ask UK which also aren’t on target, except for easily overlooked references to video clips.

Let’s dive in more formally to Ask. The Ask3D interface was rolled out with great fanfare earlier this month and just drew rave reviews from Walt Mossberg over at the Wall Street Journal. I love it too, but it fails to help much in this case. It’s better than Google but well below what Ask has promised. The results for london bombs:

Ask & London Bombs

The main results in the middle column, like Google, are all about the past bombing. Unlike Google, Ask has an entire area designed to help you narrow in or expand your query. Perhaps [london bombs] isn’t the right way to find what I’m looking for. How about those options?

Ask & London Bombs

Under Narrow Your Search, the London Bombs Today link really leaps out, as does Latest News. But for the first, the results are just as off-target except for one single result (the purple link) in the image below:

Ask & London Bombs

So Ask has nice query refinement options, but who cares if they don’t bring back relevant results (compare to’s news results for the same query to see what it should have done).

As for the Latest News link, that works better at least in getting information at the top of the page, like this:

Ask & London Bombs

Great, finally a good, relevant result right at the top, that "Latest Top Headlines" option. But the rest of the page has listings for general places to get "latest news," not necessarily the latest news about the London bombs. That was the promise for the refinement option that I selected, remember — to narrow my search to the latest news for London Bombs (years ago, by the way, refinements at Ask worked exactly this way).

At least Ask gets some bonus points for the vertical search results over in the right hand side of the page:

Ask & London Bombs

In the images, the two screenshots of TV news reports help somewhat. Much better are the video clips that talk about today’s bomb attempt. The most relevant info are the blog results. But that begs the question. After hyping how smart the Morph algorithm is that’s supposed to check various databases – including news – why weren’t news results included as one of the selected resources and put at the top of the panel?

After Google rolled out Universal Search, Yahoo made a big deal of talking to the media about how it, too, already has been blending results from various search databases. So how about it, Yahoo? For london bombs, I got:

Yahoo & London Bombs

As with Google and Ask, the main results are locked in the past. News results? Nothing. After trying some various queries, I finally got news results to pop up for london bombings:

Yahoo & London Bombs

Now news results make it to the top. And notice how they say "London Bomb - News Results." That tells me someone at Yahoo likely assumed there would be searches for london bomb, so figured a special news unit should be linked to those words (they are) as well as [london bombing]. But [london bombs] was overlooked — so much for some sophisticated algorithm that should have picked that up.

In fairness, london bomb at Google gives me this at the top of the page:

Google & London Bombs

And for Ask, it does trigger news results in the third panel:

Ask & London Bombs

But remember — there’s been misunderstanding whether it was one bomb or two that was planted. To me, it’s reasonable that a search for [london bombs] should have worked as well as [london bomb]. Moreover, the insertion of a single element hardly dramatically reshaped the relevancy of these search pages. The bulk of what they offered, on a search being driving out of an event today, was a look at material from two years ago.

How about Live? The search for london bombs there gives:

Live & London Bombs

Again, old material. The related searches suggestion of London Bomb Plot simply leads to more old material. And switching to a search for london bomb doesn’t improve anything.

Perhaps the humans over at Mahalo can do it better. Let’s see, for london bombs:

Mahalo & London Bombs

No help. Mahalo basically just gives you Google matches. The same is true for london bomb. Interesting, about an hour after I first looked at Mahalo (8:45pm UK time versus 9:30pm), a new link had been added to the home page in the news section about today’s incident:

Mahalo &amp</p>
<p>Selecting that <a href=

That link brings up some very good results:

Mahalo & London Bombs

So kudos to Mahalo for eventually getting there, though frankly it feels like it was simply noting that Wikipedia added a page and then raiding that for links. But big failure for still apparently taking so long to get there and when you do, not having the algorithmic intelligence to understand how other searches might relate to it.

Out of curiosity, I headed over to Hakia, which I’ve promised before to cover more about how it works to make use of some natural language processing (and yes, I’ll be covering Powerset in the very near future, too). Pick your query: london bombs or london bomb, neither gets me current information. Instead, I’ve got to step up to london car bombs to get even a few news results. That’s nice, but that same search at Google brings up dramatically more relevant news material, (at Yahoo it somewhat improves things; at Ask, it’s mainly about car bombs in Iraq; at Live, there’s no improvement.

I have great hope for the promises of universal or blended search. It’s been great especially to see both Google and Ask move further in this direction. But it is amazing that looking at today’s incident doesn’t make me feel they’ve come far at all in routing people to specialized search results such as news compared to how they were back after the terrorist actions of September 11. I illustrated the failures of search back then here. Nearly six years later, not much feels to have changed.

Related Topics: Ask: General | Channel: SEO | Google: Universal Search | Stats: Relevancy


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • graywolf

    You mean Google trends is like Google Zietgeist, a look at the hottest search terms (that has been filtered to show you only what we want you to see)?

  • BoardTracker

    Plenty of discussion about todays london bombs are searchable in boardtracker..

    An advantage of the time based search option.

    Remains to be seen if it will be a hotter topic than the iphone launch though.. ;)

  • Matt Cutts

    Hmm. I do see news results for the queries I would have tried ([london bomb] and [london bombing]).

    I also tried searching setting the date range to “things within the last three months” on Google, and searching for [london bomb] with that setting brings up this very relevant/fresh url:,8599,1638733,00.html
    It discusses the manhunt that has begun in the case. I checked Yahoo/Live/Ask and didn’t see that article indexed yet. So it looks like Google’s index may be faster to index that url, with still some work to do on triggering for different variants of the query.

    I also noticed that for [london bomb] I see not only News results at the top of Google, but also universal search blending in blog posts at the bottom of the page, e.g. “London Car Bomb Found; Second Car Bomb and Suspect Identified … – Counterterrorism Blog – 1 hour ago by Jeffrey Imm”.

    So that’s our universal search pulling in blog results for the query I would have done. I take your point about “bombs” vs. “bomb” though; ideally we would trigger for both search terms.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Hey Matt–

    Yep, you do get news results for [london bomb], as I pointed out. Doesn’t help for london bombs (there were two of them), and for [london bombing], well — there wasn’t an actual london bombing. So I remain pretty firm that not doing anything for [london bombs] is pretty sucky. Google should do a better job, but I se take that that point. Hey, you’ve got access to the search term data — what is the most popular related query for london bombs that’s going on right now?

    Setting the date range is a non-issue. Of course that can be done, and I’m sure that the 0.0001% of people who know about it will do so, if the bigger chunk of people who know about Google News don’t simply go there first. That’s not the point. The point is universal search is supposed to do this for us automatically. And it’s not.

    As for showing the above example and pulling out a single fresh URL — who cares? Again, I don’t see that URL for a normal search that most mere mortals would do. And if I shift over to news search results — Ask and Yahoo both seem to have plenty of fresh information there, just like Google. But I’m talking about default web search, no having to do date range restrictions, just expecting Universal Search and Ask 3D’s Morph to do their jobs as promised. No promise met.

    I don’t recall seeing the blog posts at the bottom of the search results for [london bomb], but they may well have been there (I didn’t screenshot that whole page). But I’ve already readily said that the news results at the top were good enough. So having blog search results at the bottom — fine — but neither was present for [london bombs]. Nor are these really universal search, either. If they were universal search, then these units should be replacing one of the 10 results on the page. Instead, the 10 results are all from web search, and these are simply a news OneBox at the top and whatever you call a OneBox when you shove it in at the bottom of the page.

    Indeed, Universal Search doesn’t include blog search right now. It’s only news, video, image, local and book results. About two weeks ago in Paris, Marissa said that (as she did during the initial announcement) Universal Search would eventually get blog search results. But that hasn’t happened yet, unless someone flipped a switch and didn’t bother to tell the world about it. And if you did, again, then blog search results should replace a web search listing, since that’s what Universal Search is supposed to do.

  • DaveN

    Danny did you see how close we actually where to the bombs ??


  • Danny Sullivan

    Wow — very. I knew we were near, but wow.

  • feedthebot

    Glad you are safe…
    It is odd and someho nice that the first thing you thought of when you found out that you slmost died was “hmmm, how do the search engines handle this?”

  • gary price

    Glad you are safe.
    One service that I’ve always used (for years) for a breaking news is NewsNow.

    Their “Current Affairs” crawl is excellent in these situations.

    The NewsNow crawl includes blogs and mainstream news and their total crawl should pass 30,000 sources in the next week. Pages also autorefresh every 5 minutes. You can also get a feed of EVERY item as it enters the database here:

    The country flags also make it a bit easier to see how the story is reported around the globe.

  • gary price

    Sorry about this folks. Forgot a link. NewsNow also has a pre-built constantly updated collection focusing on the London situation as well as the current affairs link.

  • jorgo

    I was trying to figure out where our traffic spike on June 29 came from. All I can say imagination is the key. London bomb is a second hand search. Interesting to mention +50% searches from US, +10% from Yahoo, striking were the searches from news networks between 3am and 5am pacific time.

  • Ciarán

    Nice post Danny – this was literally down the road from where I work, so very close to my heart.

    What’s also interesting here (to me at least) is:

    * The news story you highlight in the Ask results is an American one (note the spelling of theatre as theater) – how relevant is this for someone in the UK? The details will be the same, but for an event in your own country, local insight is essential. Would the American story have details on what Tube stops were closed (it was Picadilly, so I had to get off at a different stop).

    * The incredibly inappropriate Amazon ad in the Yahoo! results. They probably want to pay closer attention to their PPC account, as if there had been any casualties, this could have seriously risked offending people.

    What I would imagine you would find is that despite the fact that many people now use engines as their first port of call, many more (when faced with a situation like this) will turn to their most trusted sources, such as The BBC, Guardian, Times etc.. It’s what I did, and I’m a search addict. TFL (the London Transport site) certainly saw a spike (taking into account all of Alexa’s faults).

  • Jon Myers

    Great post Danny,

    Can’t believe how close we were all sat just down the road in Mint Leaf. As DaveN said in his post we must have all walked past the place the car was parked.

  • DavidDalka

    You guys *are* the bomb.

  • Heather Hopkins

    Danny, Great post. I checked Hitwise UK data to see how people were searching for the incidents. Your guess was pretty good. The highest volume term we saw for the bombs was “london car bomb”. The top site visited after searches for that term last week was Google News.

  • Ciarán

    Hi Heather,

    Don’t mean to hijack danny’s post, but did you notice any spikes to the main UK news sites as well (in terms of direct traffic)?



  • Kozo

    Searches for: “London car bomb” and “Glasgow bombs” brought up plenty of info.

    Was a “bomb” found or a “car bomb” ? Long post for nothing if it was a “car bomb”…

  • bmeister

    I agree Kozo, if you search for “london bombing attempt” or the like, it brings up the right results. So are the SE’s to ‘blame’ or is the search query wrong, knowing London has been attacked several times?

  • Danny Sullivan

    Kozo, Bmeister — I think I addressed from the start that what query someone does will impact the results and did explain things like [london bombings] worked better. However, it is not unreasonable at all to expect something like [london bombs] to have made news content much more visible. Google had NIL news content visible; Ask’s vaunted “narrow your search” options failed to suggest [london car bombs].

    People get search queries “wrong” all the time. But that’s the point of Universal Search at Google or Ask3D. They are billed as ways to help searchers even if they aren’t precise enough.

    I also have to caution everyone that once you poke at a particular set of results, it’s not uncommon to see those results get better for a range of factors. Time alone can improve them, plus the search engines themselves might make tweaks to solve problems.

  • Kaila Colbin


    What a thorough post! Well done. It just goes to show how demanding we’ve become of our search engines. Just remember what Amit Singhal said in the New York Times last month: “When there is a blackout in New York, the first articles appear in 15 minutes; we get queries in two seconds.”

    I also noticed you got some comments from people suggesting news sites and other places you could go to for the info you were after. I presume you are familiar with all of these, are highly capable of visiting on your own, and were merely conducting an experiment to see how the search engines handled a hot query. Based on this experience, do you think it should be the search engines’ job to immediately index relevant news? Or is it our responsibility to discern among different information sources for different types of information?

  • Danny Sullivan

    Hi Kaila–

    Yep, absolutely, I know plenty of places to find current news. This was more a test on what people who might not would encounter at the search engines. Plenty continue to rely on default searching even thought that’s not the best tool for getting news. But that’s also why Google and Ask in particular have rolled out new systems that are supposed to especially help these people.

  • the Wandering Author


    I’m glad you’re okay, and I generally find your posts useful and interesting, but you might want to cut the search engines a little slack. Why?

    Your own “algorithm” made an error that leapt out at me; I’m surprised no one else picked up on it. Go back to the Ask screenshot, and look carefully at the entry with the purple link. The URL appears to be a blog post, and part of the string is 2005/07 – in other words, this isn’t relevant either. It was clearly posted in July 2005, at the time of the Tube bombings. I suspect it was the comment about the bombs being ineffective that ‘got’ you.

    Don’t feel too bad about the slip; I have spent a lot of time doing very careful research, and have trained myself to take in details. But if a highly intelligent person is capable of a slip like that, how can we expect algorithms designed by fallible people to always get it right? Search works well enough for those who know how to use it; I don’t think it will ever be possible to make it work all the time for those who won’t take the time to learn how to get good results.

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