Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

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Posted by shannonclark on October 29, 2002

Searching the web, some observations

also posted to my blog on Ecademy

I have been searching online databases for over 15 years, since my high school library moved to an electronic card catalogue driven by the CS department’s VAX.

In that time my skill at quickly getting to relevant search results has grown considerably. For Internet resources and services I started years ago with Archie and Veronica. With the advent of the web I moved to Yahoo!, Altavista, Lycos, and then Google (and played with various metasearch sites from time to time).

Currently I primarily use Google, and occasionally use modern meta search services such as Kartoo (in French though they have an English version – may be loading slowly at the moment).

Recently I noticed the following link in my company’s referrer logs: Google Search on “why we use AI techniques” (note, search was done without the use of quotes)

My firm shows up at the 7th result in this search (pretty cool I think).

However, I then tried a search on the phrase “use AI techniques” – again, without the quotes in my search.

This time, my firm shows up as the 77th result.

Google was ignoring the “why”, so my firm slipped 10 fold in the search results because of a simple “we”.

If you search using the quotes on the phrase “we use AI techniques” my site does not show up at all.

The technical reason for this is that the page title of my site’s page that contains the phrase “use AI techniques” is “JigZaw Inc, What We Do” – thus Google’s algorithm ranks it highly on a search containing the phrase “We”.

Note this is a very good example of why informative page titles are so crucial.

What also strikes me as intriguing about this simple example, is that it shows how important a “small” word (such as “we”) can be in determining search results, and how differently the use/non-use of quotes (i.e. exact phrase matches) can be as well.

For both site maintainers/designers, as well as general users this bears paying close attention to – the very specific phrases that you use when searching can change dramatically the results that you get – and thus the percieved “ranking” of various sites.

For a long time my general advice to people when searching the web has been to be exact – search using the tense and tone of language that reflects what you are looking for (i.e. don’t search on generic terms and phrases, start by searching on the exact message) – this points to why this is both powerful but also potentially deceptive – those small words and phrases by skew results considerably.

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