Jan 3, 2006

Questions and answers

The Web has changed the way people store, retrieve and use information. With an entire generation growing up believing that Google has answers to all your questions, it is not that hard to get the idea that any information we need is available on the Internet. The tough part is finding it.

Yes, web search is not the most difficiult thing to do when you are searching for 'general theory of relativity' or 'iPod'. However, when you are searching for concepts that are hard to put down in a couple of words, you hit the brick wall of irrelevant results.

This is because all current search engines work on the principle of keywords. The keyword based search system implicitly assumes that the user knows enough about what he is looking for, and only then can she find a relevant webpage. I emphasise on the point that we are not talking about simple factual queries like the 'capital of Finland', which will yield the correct answer in Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves. Instead, imagine you are researching on the problems that a traditional media company will face in the next few decades. Depending on your luck and the keywords that you choose to search the Web, your results may range anywhere from mediocre to average. Unless, of course, you have done some lateral thinking.

The lateral thinking I mentioned is not exactly the Edward de Bono variety, you really don't need to go that far. It is indeed much simple. If you got what you are looking for with the exact keyword of the stated problem - 'problems faced by traditional media company in the future', well done. However, in the more likely scenario that you did not, consider stating the problem in a different way. Try using synonyms of the different words in your search query, mixing and matching them and see if your quality of results improve. In fact, to be more succesful, imagine yourself as an online webmaster or publisher writing an article on the topic and use the words that you would use in your article as the keywords. Chances are you will get to the relevant results much sooner.

Search engine technology have come a long way and already some of them provide answer to basic questions. However, their semantic and syntactic abilities are much limited at the moment, but improvements in artificial intelligence will see much clever search agents ready with answers to more complicated questions in the near future. Until then though, we will have to contend ourselves with keyword tweaking and trial- and- error searching before that elusive page answering all your doubts can be found. As Peter Drucker once said, a great consultant is one who asks the right questions.

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