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.