By at Search Engine Land

At the most recent Search Insider Summit, Aaron Goldman moderated a terrific panel titled The Perfect Search Engine (video here). Panelists evaluated how the perfect search engine (PSE) might take information (voice, text, other signals), how it should display that information, and what factors should carry the most weight in ranking results.

Overall, the discussion was great, but chopping up the issue into facets missed the broader implications of PSE. So, I thought Id close out my blogging for 2011 with a prescription of my own and how such changes could impact paid advertising.

Lets start from first principles and address the question: What do users want from a search engine?

The most concise answer might be: we want the engine to provide results that match our intent.

While many search engines have invested in fancy new tools, such as the bing voice search option, for example, the main factor when it comes to search engines is how they display the information we have asked for. When I search for pictures of Abraham Lincoln I want the results to be images of Abraham Lincoln, not websites that have those images. If I search for Newtons gravitational constant Id like PSE to give me the number, not websites where I might find that information. If I search for Walmart, why not take me to their website directly, or perhaps to a map if Im searching on a mobile device?

But herein lies the rub: sometimes the users intent is obvious, sometimes, as with that last example, its somewhat unclear, and other times it is utterly ambiguous. Google and Bing try to guess based on the behavior of other users who conducted similar searches, based on the browsers past activity, based on geography, and a host of other factors.

The engines have done an amazing job of organizing the worlds information as the Google folks describe it, and the intent matching continues to improve, but were still pretty far from understanding exactly what Susy wants this time when she searches for Golf.

The perfect search engine will not be able to read users minds either at least, not in my lifetime but, until we get to clairvoyance, the next best notion might be: how quickly can PSE return results that match the users real intent? In many circumstances, the fastest way to get comprehensive results is to ask follow up questions.

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The perfect search engine should recognize degrees of ambiguity and respond with:

  • Exactly what I ask for when the intent is clear,
  • A range of potential options (universal search) when its less clear, and
  • Appropriate follow up questions when the answers will get the user what they want quicker than they will get it from an array of widely disparate choices.

Many people search for furniture but very few actually want something that vague.

Quick refinement options, targeted appropriately might be the best response. For example: Indoor or outdoor furniture? What type of furniture?

Most good websites do this already, through navigation drop downs and shopping widgets.

The results of these refined searches would get users much closer to their end goal and save them lots of time looking through websites that dont carry what theyre actually after.

How The Perfect Search Engine Would Affect Advertisers

Advertisers would benefit tremendously from this as well. Instead of competing for traffic they may not actually want (because the user really wanted a mission-style dining room set, and they sell inexpensive living room and bedroom furniture) they can compete for traffic after the user has clarified their intent. This would improve conversion rates, and save users time as well.

Lets think about flights to Cancun. Spitting out websites that will then ask questions about dates and accoutrements is okay, but the future might see the engines take all the information needed from the user and then show the choices from the airlines directly bypassing the OTAs entirely.

In eCommerce, perhaps the PSE would provide the same type of navigation options to get users to the product level before shipping them off to the advertisers site.

PSE has to figure out how to present the right questions and options, and exercise judgment in when to seek follow up and how many refinement questions to offer.

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Clearly, we dont want PSE to turn into Mr. Clippy.

Effectively PSE could evolve into the uber-website, taking most of the weight off of internal site navigation because the users come into the advertisers site at the right level of depth in the first place.

Perhaps the perfect SERP would have a handful of best guesses at the top paid or organic or some of each with a prominent set of pull down refinements targeted to the category.

User: Attorney PSE: Here are some general listings for Attorney, but to expedite your search, please select the type of attorney do you need from the following list.

Perhaps todays engines are heading down this path already. Quite possible that theyve been down this path and found it to be less user friendly than I imagine (not PSERP but LSERP where the L is for lousy).

Perhaps this isnt as different from instant as I think it could be.

What Does The Perfect Search Engine Look Like For Advertisers?

The other question the panel mentioned but didnt have time to flesh out was: is there a difference between what users would find to be PSE and what the advertisers would find to be PSE?

I think the answer is no. Satisfying the users intent on the first non-engine page will save users time and frustration, encouraging more search. Getting users what they want on the first click will greatly improve conversion rates for advertisers by better qualifying the traffic.

Increasing the value of the traffic will increase the price advertisers are willing to pay which willmore than compensate PSE for the reduction in fruitless clicks. Win-Win-Win.

A New Years present for all of us?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.