There’s an interesting post over on the Nielsen Wire blog from Jon Gibs (their VP Media Analytics) about the methods people are now using to discover content. Their findings show that a lot of surfers now make social media their starting point when trying to find information online. 18% of the people Nielsen quizzed said they start a search for new information using Wikipedia, blogs or social networks (such as Facebook or Twitter). That’s a pretty big percentage, especially when you consider that only 37% said they started their hunt on a search engine (which you’d traditionally think might be the starting point).

It’s not really a surprise to see web users learning to trust information that is recommended by their peers, or info that comes from within their sphere of influence on social networks. Recommendation is a powerful thing online and crowd sourced recommendations are a great way to answer certain queries. However, as networks are inherently distributed are they as likely to get an accurate answer to their more complex info needs as they would on a search engine?

In the same report 26% of respondents who identified themselves as socializers (the ones likely to start on a socnet) said that they feel ‘there is too much information online’. Perhaps this is what draws them to social networks for their information searching needs? Maybe the trust factor that someone has recommended some information to them gives them the confidence that they will drill through the dross and find the nugget they are looking for. However, if they feel overloaded now that is only going to get worse as networks grow.

Social network contacts are never going to be able to answer all the questions that intelligent use of a search engine would (unless your network includes some of the finest minds). If we, as web users, rely too much on social networks for finding information are we going to lose the ability to really search when we need to? Search can be a bit of an art form; some people struggle to get how to think laterally when searching for a niche topic, others can get there in one or two searches by using word combinations and booleans cleverly. Could reliance on social networks for the answers to questions destroy the art of searching or data mining that the web has historically been so good at encouraging? Social networks are great for recommendation and serendipitous discovery of content but how do they cater for people who just want their questions answered? Do they need to branch out more deeply into indexing and search or perhaps encourage search to begin on their networks by providing tools to do so?

I’m not offering any answers as this is a shift in habits which has been underway for a long time, but as more users become socializers (inevitable), and information becomes more and more realtime, someone needs to provide a way they can divine the realtime stream for the information they seek. Either that or search engines need to provide new, more social ways to search their indexes. What do you think?

PS. Just in case you think I mean divine in the Biblical sense, have a look at this.
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Search engine marketers aren’t having an easy time with Google these days.

Google have made a change to the search results interface which aims to make it more Digg/Wiki like by allowing users to move results up and down the list, delete sites from a results set and even add sites into a set of results.

For the user this is actually a really nice piece of functionality as it allows you to tailor search results to make them more relevant to you, I’m assuming it’s all stored in your web history so future searches keep the customisation.

What this does do is make it really hard for a search engine marketer to know whether what they see as the top ten results on Google is what the users are seeing. In most cases the answer is probably no now.

I think it’s a great move though and could actually help to focus the search engine optimisation industry on making pages more relevant through improving content and engaging users as that is what will encourage them to keep a result high up their list!

Full details on the Google Blog.

So, yesterday Bill Gates hinted in his keynote at CES that Microsoft would improve search. It’s an area where they haven’t really shown any improvement in recent years. I thought to myself at the time, maybe they’ve finally realised that it’s all about the algorithm and the quality of results you deliver to users, not in the interface and fancy AJAX tools.

So I watched, and waited, and lo and behold they announce an offer to buy FAST Search and Transfer!

The offer comes to approx $1.2B which is a fair valuation. Rumours are that the shareholders have already approved this and it’s all a formality and will go ahead pretty quickly.

Top move Bill! FAST is a great piece of search technology with many applications. It has it’s heart rooted in providing good algorithms and tailorable search tools which is exactly where Microsoft should be pushing it’s Live Search offering.

Now you just have to integrate this with Adcentre and deliver a Google beating search engine, no small task, that should make the next year very interesting!

Eye tracking company Enquiro Research has produced a report (sponsored by Google no less) which shows the importance for brands to be well represented at the top of both natural and paid search listings.

They say ‘There is significant correlation between brands’ appearing in the top organic search and sponsored placements and consumer brand affinity, recall and purchase intent‘. Well that’s pretty obvious, but it’s always nice to have these concepts validated by eye tracking (something that I place great value in as an insight and usability tool).

The most interesting findings are:

This shows that there is definite brand affinity and recall to be gained by being well positioned and using the brand name in your listings. Good advice for travel companies with January coming, I see so many travel listings that are just a destination name and no brand mention at all.

The full report can be found here.

Less is more it would seem when it comes to search interfaces. Just look at Google to see the less-is-more approach at it’s best. Their minimal approach to the search homepage works really well, although I do think a big reason for that is that their algorithm is much better at returning relevant results with minimal input from the user.

Prof. John Maeda of MIT Media Lab had put together an interesting image showing the development of both Google and Yahoo’s homepage over time. It’s really interesting to see how Yahoo lost their way and Google stayed true to the minimal approach. Click the image below to see a full size version:

In customer satisfaction it would seem.

JD Power has completed a survey of internet users looking at their satisfaction with various online services. In use of search, Dogpile has come top for the second year running with Google coming in second.

The study, now in its fourth year, examines consumer behavior, experiences and satisfaction of Internet service subscribers with the most frequently used online services. These include search engine/functions, web portal, instant messaging, social networking, music downloading services and online console gaming systems.

The search rankings are below:
Dogpile is a meta-search engine which scrapes all the major search providers and presents the results back to the user. This provides a one-stop search experience for it’s users. Another factor that helps it is the companies limit they place on advertising next to the results. Paid search adverts are integrated into the results listings and mentioned as sponsored, this isn’t particularly obvious so perhaps users just miss the fact that they click on ads.

I think a lot of this is down to misconception by users. I believe they probably think they are getting a better service as Dogpile promises to search all the best engines in one go. What the users probably don’t notice is that the relevance suffers as a result of this. There can be pages and pages of similar results, many links to the same websites and definitely more advanced searchers won’t get the same valuable results they would from Google. Could this be a case of lower numbers of users and less sophisticated users?

Dogpile beat Google on satisfaction, functionality, ease of use and results quality in the survey. I am going to trial Dogpile for a while to see if it could ever replace Google for me, I reckon it won’t but am always willing to give something different a try.

I posted the other day surmising whether Yahoo is catching up in search based on some new metrics from Compete. The general feel from that post was that they weren’t really and the numbers were questionable in value.

So, what should I see this morning? New, useful features in Yahoo’s main search interface, the kind of features that make search a whole lot less painful for users and add a lot of value, helping users to target searches more effectively.

The first thing I noticed was that they have integrated images from Flickr and also playable videos, kind of like Google’s universal search idea and equally as useful to the user. So if you search for a music artist (eg. Unkle) you should get images and video in the results along with useful additions such as links to albums, lyrics, photos and more videos. Next I did a search for a hotel (eg. ‘hudson hotel new york‘) in New York (being the online travel buff that I am) and the top result in this case was a Yahoo Local listing for the hotel complete with map links, again extremely useful (although possibly doing themselves out of a small amount of ad revenue here). Another cool feature is the inclusion of custom results for searches such as health related (eg. ‘lyme disease‘), quick easy access to relevant info is the killer in search and here Yahoo have it spot on.

And then there’s the biggest and most useful addition, and it’s an addition that Google haven’t yet implemented… It’s an AJAX based search assistant panel that appears if it senses you hesitate while typing a search query. It works as an auto-complete assistant and also a guided search tool as it will both try to guess what you were typing and give you suggestions as well. This is extremely powerful and really makes search easier for the user. It also adds a lot of value to advertisers as it should mean more qualified clicks on paid search results as the searches are better informed.

I’m actually really surprised this has come out of Yahoo first, I’ve been waiting for Google to implement something like this for a while now but for once Yahoo have the upper hand. Now all they need to do is sort out the problems with their paid search results (relevancy, gaming etc), fix their algorithms for natural search and improve the interface and they could become my search engine of choice!