Search Transparency and Trust

One way to increase user’s trust in your search engine is to give hints about how it works. When a search engine doesn’t work, the wrong results can be mysterious. That mystery leads to mistrust and to some interesting folklore about search engine algorithms.

Why is Australian radio associated with Disney? Well, because the engine thought that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was the same as the ABC that is part of Disney. With no explanation, that looks stupid, but with “ABC” highlighted, it is a reasonable mistake. That extra information makes the search engine more trusted.

Snippets: These days, we expect search engines to show passages from the matched documents and to highlight the matching words. Why is that important? Because it shows what the engine matched in that document and helps explain why it appears in the results. It eliminates the mystery so the user can say, “Oh you silly engine, that is the wrong ABC!”

Because you liked: At Netflix, the recommendations are introduced with an explanation. For our account, it looks like this today, “The following movies were chosen based on your interest in: Man with the Movie Camera, Gladiator, Harvey.” Without that hint, I would be genuinely confused by recommendations including Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The Last Samurai.

Group by Topic: Showing related topics is helpful, but a topic name is usually not enough information for people to trust the link. Instead, show the topic and the first two or three documents in that topic. This is especially useful when the user’s query doesn’t match up with the way the topics are organized. A search for “linux” could match press releases, products, knowledge base, and so on. Show the first few matches in each of those areas and the contents are much more clear.

Google, Yahoo, and MSN cannot reveal their algorithms, but you can (unless you use Google for your site search, oops). The WWW engines must defend against spammers taking advantage of loopholes in their scores. If you own your own content and your own search engine, you can reveal as much as you want. Just don’t make it all about the engine, the users are there for the content.

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Yellow Pages are Dead

At least the paper version of the yellow pages is dead. I opened the new phonebook to find an Indian restaurant for take-out, and the listings were skimpy enough that the the by-cuisine section is gone. Restaurants that I know exist were not listed. My guess is that restaurants are dropping their yellow pages ads in favor of web sites. In the latest phone book for Palo Alto, that section in the directory just dropped below the useful level. I won’t bother with it again.

Unfortunately, local web search still isn’t doing the job. Yahoo! Local is the best, but browsing multiple pages for different kinds of restaurants is really clumsy compared to the good ol’ paper yellow pages. Try it: a Yahoo! search for indian restaurants, palo alto links to this Yahoo! Local result. Not bad, but it doesn’t seem very complete or up to date. Why list the Whole Foods six miles away in downtown Palo Alto but not the new one a mile away in Los Altos?

If I have more time to plan, I scan the Metroactive restaurant section which has pretty good coverage, but with some mysterious navigational division between full reviews and the one sentence descriptions.

In our case, we skipped restaurant take-out entirely, and grabbed some Indian from the deli/take-out section at Piazza’s, our local grocery. So switching from paper to web didn’t really pay off for the local restaurants.

Silicon Valley is a few years ahead of the rest of the country in web adoption, so let’s hope that local search can get it together before my parents in Texas are stranded with a skinny, useless yellow section in their phonebook.

Backpacking: A Cutting Board and a Fix for Slippery Pads

While in Bed, Bath, & Beyond getting a new coffee maker, I grabbed a couple of inexpensive items for backpacking.

A flexible cutting board. These cost $4 for a pack of two 12″x15″ sheets of tough plastic. I might cut one to a smaller size for easier packing. I think we’ll keep the other one for car camping. How do you cut a cutting board? I’m betting on my compound metal shears.

A roll of grabby rubber drawer lining, the kind that is soft with a sort of honeycomb of holes. Wrap a length of this around your sleeping pad, and it will stay put in your tent. Your sleeping bag will also stay on your pad. I chose the dark brown color so it won’t show as much dirt. This was $10 for a 20′ roll. Six or seven feet should be enough for one wrap around the pad with a bit of overlap, so this will supply three people.

Both of these ideas are from a backpacking colleague (and fellow Scoutmaster). They are lightweight and cheap, and address serious backcountry issues: food cleanliness and good sleep. Your mind and attitude are critical safety equipment, so you must keep them in good shape. If your trek leader is sleep-deprived and throwing up, they probably aren’t making the best decisions.

Hmm, sounds like another Scoutmaster Minute, if I can find a hook to something that matters to the boys.

More Bad Reporting from CNN Headline News

Yesterday, our local CNN Headline News radio station (KLIV 1590) ran a puff piece on the CEO of Harper-Collins. I think it was the CEO. She sounded like a sharp person, but I can’t manage to even verify her name on the badly-designed H-C website. In it, they claimed that H-C is the first publisher to make excerpts of their books available on-line. They rolled out that “innovative” idea this year. Bzzzt. Wrong.

OK, accepting the qualifier “publisher” does rule out relative unknowns like Amazon (search inside this book) and Google’s book search. Google and Amazon aren’t publishers. And “excerpt” accidentally rules out the Baen Free Library which publishes entire books. But it is still wrong.

Every heard of the publisher O’Reilly? The reporter would have, if they’d ever even walked into the cube of anyone who keeps cnn.com running. O’Reilly has published book chapters for many years. Five years, seven, who knows? Heck, they’ve been doing it long enough to move past that stuff to a customizable on-line textbook publishing system for universities.

And I can’t even link to the CNN HN story so I can diss it specifically, because it doesn’t seem to exist on their website. Bleah.

I titled this “more bad reporting” because the worst science reporting I’ve ever heard was on CNN Headline News. I’ll write that up later.