Does the Web need Collaborative Search Tools?

Search engine interfaces have historically been designed to let just an individual search the Web for their needs.  In over 15 years since the first Web search engine hit the market, search engine use has become ubiquitous, with many searches actually being collaborative in nature. But search engines have remained in the domain for individual use only.  Why are search engines designed only to be used alone?

Before answering this, I think it is useful to see if search engines really are being used collaboratively today? Let us look at one example in a bit of detail

Planning a vacation with friends / family: Whether it is spring break with friends, or a summer vacation with family, vacation planning involved web searching and communication, coordination and collaboration with friends or family members. When my family went on a summer vacation to Toronto, Canada recently, I had to engage my family members in the process, seeking input about places to go, places to stay, and myriad other details. Here’s how I ended up doing this job:

  • Suffering from Google addiction as many out there are, I googled many times to find interesting information about places in and around Toronto, day trips of interest, interesting places to stay etc.
  • I copied links of interest over into my email and pruned that list and would periodically pass it around for comments from the family
  • I visited many different specialty sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com, Priceline, Kayak etc. to find possible flight itineraries, and places to stay
  • And in turn, I copied interesting links of places to stay, as well as possible travel itineraries, in email and sent that around for comments from the family
  • My wife or son would pass along interesting links via email along the way from some searches they did, or tidbits they heard from other family members / friends who had been to Toronto before.  Some more conversations would ensue.
  • Many iterations of this, and many email conversations and many in-person conversations (where that was possible) later, many days from when we started this process, we arrived at the decisions we needed.  We had firmed up an itinerary, places to stay, details of places to see, day trips to try out, and lists of links of interest towards our visit (all scattered across multiple emails).

Does this sound familiar?  This is collaborative searching at work.  Albeit with search engines that weren’t built to support it.

Let’s look at another example in a little detail.

Researching a disease or medical condition: It is not uncommon these days to have a good friend or a family member get diagnosed with some new disease or medical condition. That kicks off the process of trying to learn more about the disease or condition, finding treatment options, and finding ways to cope with the condition.  Recently, in my family, a relative of mine was diagnosed recently with high cholesterol and diabetes at the same time. They reached out to me for input on food or lifestyle changes that might help with the management of the diseases along with their regular mainstream treatment. They were keen to know about herbs or supplements that might help, or how methods like Yoga or energy healing might contribute towards a return to wellness faster.  The process that ensued was like this:

  • I googled many different queries related to these conditions, and additional queries related to diet, nutrition, supplements / herbs, lifestyle changes, looking for good authoritative information that I could pass along
  • I started collecting links into an email and sent them along in small batches to my relative
  • In turn, I’d get emails back with links and questions about the legitimacy / believability of various claims made about certain supplements or herbs.  And I’d check them out to see the sources and citations and so forth and write back about each
  • Occasionally, they would find me online on Skype and reach out to me to chat about some additional things they had read.  In the process, we’d discover some more interesting resources to keep for future use, which I’d go copy into an open email or new email
  • Dozens of queries, hundreds of pages sifted, and many email threads later, we had collected dozens of links of use for my relative. They finally had the information they needed to make their own decision in concert with their doctor

Sound familiar again?  This too is an example of collaborative search in action today.

The problem with this is that, this process is inefficient, time consuming, prone to redundant work (people doing the same queries, seeing the same sites that were not useful etc.), and at the end of all this, the useful information is spread across multiple emails and possibly some instant messaging / chat sessions, and not easily discoverable or usable when you need to consult it later on.

Here are more examples at home or in other personal contexts, where I’ve run into this need:  Shopping for an appliance or a big ticket item;  Looking for a new home; Finding suppliers for a craft project;  Finding learning resources for gifted kids etc.

Plenty of such examples also exist in the academic context or business context as well.

What is common across all of these examples is that there’s more than one person involved in the finding, collecting, organizing, sharing or using of that information.  i.e. These are prime examples of collaborative searching, which cry out for a new breed of collaborative search tools.

So, yes, I think that the Web needs collaborative search tools now.  What do you think?

My startup Zakta, is about to launch SearchTeam (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Search Team), a real time collaborative search and curation engine.  It combines traditional search engine features, with semantics, curation tools, real-time and asynchronous collaboration tools to deliver the world’s first commercial tool for real-time collaborative searching with trusted people.  SearchTeam is designed from ground up to enable users to search the Web together with others they trust, curating, sharing and collaborating on what they need on any given topic.  I’ll be sharing more information about this in the coming days and weeks.

The Google seduction – Are instant search results blinding you to the real cost of your searches?

I’ll admit it.  I’m hooked on Google!

To start with, back in 1999, I was impressed with the speedy and mostly relevant search results delivered by Google.  I got mesmerized by their growing coverage, the advanced tools, and mostly by their simple, uncluttered, spartan interface that never changed in years.  I got lazier and hooked even more when Google started suggesting queries I could use – now I don’t even type my query fully often, and pick from the query suggestions list instead.  My addiction to Google has only gotten worse with Google Instant, where I get results as I type (granted, that this thing works well some times, and is downright irritating at other times when it slows down my typing of the query).  There are these delightful situations where I type in the name of a company, and I get the company’s web site, address, phone number and a map, ready for use – exactly what I needed.  Examples like this abound.  In all, these are ingredients of the Google seduction!  Masterfully crafted tools and features that keep me hooked and coming back for more.

You know what I mean!  It’s highly likely, from seeing market share stats, that you, like me, are hooked on Google too!

If you’ve seen the previous posts here, you might have noticed that I’m an entrepreneur, and my team has created an alternative search engine that will be released to the market soon.  Why am I admitting to being seduced by and hooked on Google?  Because it is true, and it is a reality I expect to encounter again and again in releasing our brand new search engine to market soon.

As productive and as satisfying my searches like these are on Google, there are different types of searches I do often which are downright frustrating and painful.

Example 1:

Shopping for a laptop computerTake for instance the time when I wanted to find a good laptop suitable for use by son who was heading to college (this past summer).  I was buying a laptop after a 2 year gap, so I had to find out what laptop technologies were out there, research specific features of interest to us, find reviews of models, find deals etc. – the whole effort lasted many hours. During this time, I used Google out of habit, and had to wade through tons of irrelevant and commercially hijacked results.  It wasn’t easy keeping things together that I found interesting along the way, and it certainly wasn’t easy to share findings readily with my son.  And in parallel, my son did some searches and we couldn’t easily get in synch with our efforts.  Irrelevant results, lot of time spent in sifting through results, no easy way to save what was useful, no easy way to share, no easy way to find things together, and no easy way to pause the searching process and continue from where I left off.

Example 2:

Finding a hypoallergenic natural sunblock or sunscreenHere’s another example … recently I had to research hypoallergenic sun screen / sun block solutions because my family had developed an allergy to something in traditional sun screen products.  I recall spending over 8 hours, Googling over and over across dozens of different queries, pouring over pages and pages of results, sifting through the gunk to isolate useful nuggets.  Since I had to do this across multiple sessions, often I had to repeat my searches and sift through the same results, often irrelevant, over and over again.  Post-it notes, clippings in a Word document, patchy email notes sent to other family members about this — this was my toolset for collecting, sharing and collaborating.  I did find 2-3 products finally, but it wasn’t easy.  And I’m an above-average searcher myself!

Example 3:

Planning a reunion in central FloridaIn late 2009, my extended family decided to have a family reunion in Florida.  In that context, we had to search for travel options, accommodations for 16 people, attractions, food/eating choices and ideas and a whole lot more.  Of course, I Googled over and over and over across many days doggedly, used emails to collect information and share with other family members across the country, and eventually we did have a great reunion in the Orlando area.  But, Googling offered little support in accomplishing this whole task!

If you think these searches are outliers, think to your own experiences of researching to purchase a gadget, an appliance or any big ticket item.  Think about the time you started researching places for a vacation with family or friends.  Or when you had to find more about a disease or medical condition and treatment options for a dear one.  Or the time when you had to find a supplier for a product / service at work.  The list is quite large, of searches like these, where the search itself is a process, and not something that yields an answer with a single query and the desired result on page-1.  Whether these searches emerge from our need as a consumer, or as a student, or as a business professional, the problem is the same!  The instant gratification that seduced me and you into using Google, and has us addicted to it, doesn’t do a darned thing to help here.

I don’t know how to say it, except quite bluntly – Google isn’t designed for searches like these, at least not today! Neither are other mainstream search engines.

The irrelevant results, coming from the search result pages that have been hijacked for queries with a commercial intent, make it worse.  Check out Paul Kedrosky’s post: Dishwashers, and How Google Eats Its Own Tail, Alan Patrick’s post: On the increasing uselessness of Google and Jeff Atwood’s post: Trouble in the House of Google for more examples where Googling isn’t helping as it might have some time ago. The subject of declining relevance in search results is a separate topic that I’ll write more about later.

These searches are expensive in terms of time – your and my precious time lost in googling over and over.  And yet, each one of us goes back to Google every so often for a need like this, and go through the same time wasting process over and over again!

So, when you factor in these sorts of searches that you do, what is the real cost of your searches in all?

Seduced by the tools of instant gratification, I personally believe we have been enslaved into using Google (and same could be said for regular Bing or Yahoo or Ask or AOL users too) even when it is not the right tool for the job.  “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, the saying goes, and it seems that the vast majority of searchers are using the Google hammer all the time, even when it is clearly not the right tool for the job. The cost of doing so?  I don’t have concrete numbers to share yet, but I think it is safe to say that there’s a HUGE collective productivity loss from using the wrong tool for a searching job like this!

What is your opinion on this matter?

My startup, Zakta, is set to launch SearchTeam, the world’s first real-time collaborative search engine soon.  By combining tools to search, collaborate and curate into a single integrated solution, we hope to provide a useful search tool for finding information like this individually, or together with friends, family members, colleagues or other trusted people. I’ll share more information about this in the coming days and weeks.

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