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 Ask.com 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:
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 Ask.com, 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:
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?
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:
So Ask has nice query refinement options, but who cares if they don’t bring back relevant results (compare to Ask.com’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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
And for Ask, it does trigger news results in the third panel:
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:
Perhaps the humans over at Mahalo can do it better. Let’s see, for 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:
That link brings up some very good results:
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.