Mental Models For Search Are Getting Firmer (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox)

Jakob Nielsen, in an article titled Mental Models For Search Are Getting Firmer, provides more fuel for my claim that web search is a commodity. He warns against trying to change the search user interface. This argues that search engines should not try to distinguish themselves with fancy front ends. That leaves the backend, where innovation seems to have slowed as well…

7 Responses to “Mental Models For Search Are Getting Firmer (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox)”

  1. David Says:

    I too believe search is a commodity and our “gut feel” has been confirmed by respected research from Nielsen. In fact it inspired my own blog.

    My understanding is that Nutch can be made to have search quality (at least) as good as google/yahoo. I accept this even though my initial, simple tests on Nutch-0.6 are not yet creating the results I am seeking (be aware Nutch clearly says that the search optimisation has not yet been done). Even if the search technology/algorithm and front-end are commodities, there are still significant elements of “search” which are not commodities and represent great value for the incumbent majors:

    * An index of a few billion pages
    * The ability to keep the index reasonably fresh
    * The mind share of people to go to google for a search (the verb “to google”)

    My sites currently get 75%-80% of their traffic from google.

    I want to use Nutch within my sites … I really do. But I find myself asking
    * Why?
    * How can I make money from it?
    * What will make users use my search rather than google?
    * How will users find my search?

    The answer I believe lies in well organised niches, not in generalised search. (Can anyone point me to some good niche search references)

    It is interesting that if I choose 2 niche search services:

    * Clusty using Vivisimo technology, and
    * Kellysearch a B2B niche search site

    These two apparently successful companies are making their money from keyword ads and featured listings they sell plus Google Ad Sense(+ bizrate).

    This is a perverse twist. Their business model depends on google to source traffic and to provide revenue despite in some sense competing with the hand that feeds them.

    How does this effect me? OK … I have some niche areas in which I provide specialised information and directories. I believe I can identify the key sites I can use to seed a crawl. Assuming the search is of sufficient quality I can have a niche search engine.

    I am not, however, clever enough to to turn this into into revenue for my business nor can I see how this IP adds value to the business. I believe a niche search will produce revenue and add value but can anyone point out how!

  2. David White Says:

    Hi david

    I think it is about volume and quantity, of course, Google does both. But if you operate in a vertical market and you have sufficient content and supply cool and useful info then user may start to search for stuff. You can test this quickly installing Google search on your site – and they will pay for it. Presto, you have cash.

    A google search box will show you stats, from there you can make further decisions about monetisation, i.e. run Google adsense down the side or other things.

    then depending on your discoveries you can decide whether or not you want to run a different search system and change your content to reflect more visitor wishes and maybe continue with Google Adsense, switch to another supplier, or sell your own ads directly…

    In answer to your first question, maybe you could run Google on one site and Nutch on another, then compare hwo they are used over time. I think the objective is simply to get users to search the choice of which search is a difficult one, most people love the Google brand, but does your web page and its vistiors?

    How do you make money from it – there are a range of monetisation techniques, adsense, you own ads and other contextual advertising techniques – the amount you make depends on quality and quantity as above.

    I am talking about on site search and simply offering on site search will give you users of your search system. (on our main sites we do not use any search -which we will change eventualy – on our ‘protosites’ we always add search…).

  3. AutoEditor Says:

    I’m not sure I’d agree that its a commodity in itself, though I can see the argument’s attraction. The commodity to me are the results – the search, the interface are the mediators between the consumer and the consumed (searcher and search results).

    I sense some degree of philosphical reductionism in declaring that it’s a mortal sin “if your design conflicts with users’ preconceived mental models”. That is a reasonable proposition if one could expect the average user’s mental model to be based on wide experience in search. But the average searcher’s mental model may be more of a string and paper kite than a boeing 737 – and I don’t mean that disparagingly, but its a fact that most searchers do not have the skills to perform advanced search anyway.

    Other recent studies conclude that the skills required for searching cannot be improved by trial and error alone.

    Should -all- search interfaces then, acording to Mr Neilsen, cater to the person without any understanding or experience of searching, who may be persistently unable to discover what they need without training or assistance. What is the design value of that mental model?

    Like the current MS strategy for search applications, which is, very seriously according to some, to “wean people off searching”, there is something about JN’s argument that almost avoids dealing with the main issue by interposing another.

  4. Bobby Says:

    web ranking

  5. Liberta-Togo Says:

    Its sad to think how short peoples memory is . Everyone thinks they have to compete against GOOGLE.

    When it comes to searching weve had various people in Top spot , Excite , Altavista, Yahoo, Northern Light , Ask Jeeves , etc now its Google.

    When you look at googles results , talk to users and webmasters alike googles results,index are not getting better in fact they are getting worse, Googles index is full of outdated information , Spam , Fake websites etc .

    If Nutch is are good as people say it is then its like the saying ” if you build it they will come”

    Google will not always be top dog.

    Another way to look at it is the average website user uses more than 1 search engine . Most people use 2 or even 3 search engines when they are online . Just been an alternative search engine and been 1 of those in a users choice can still generate big bucks.

    I remember when Yahoo was a “verb” .

    I say Tosh to anyone who believes a good search technology cannot take and move google into being the next alta vista or excite

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Niche search engines will only succeed if they can provide better search results for their niche than the big search engines can.

    For example, Kosmix health search aims to search medically relevant web sites and provide info about medications and diseases. But I can already get that same information, often from the same sites, when I search Google and provide the name of a medicine or a disease. It’s easy enough to key in on names even if you’re a general purpose search engine. Can Kellysearch find businesses and products better than Google and Froogle can?

    The reason people are pushing niche search engines, I think, isn’t because of the ambiguity that results from the same term having multiple definitions (that would be a sensible reason to have a niche search, but the ambiguity is rare and can usually be worked around by providing multiple terms to supply a context)- it’s because when you’re providing a niche search you don’t have to crawl as many pages. That lowers costs and makes it easier to attract backing. But it doesn’t help the end user.

    That’s not to say that niche search engines are completely useless. I like Yahoo! Mindset, which could be seen as a kind of niche search because it specializes in certain types of results. I like Froogle and Google Scholar too (which I guess are the Google equivilent of Yahoo! Mindset). But they’re very general sorts of niches, and they (especially Yahoo! Mindset) still have to index a wide breadth of pages. I’m skeptical that the smaller niche search engines will steal much mindshare from the big players (though they may stick around if they successfully fufill their niche).

    Now as for Clusty, Yahoo made it’s name for itself with searches of human compiled directories, and has slowly been letting it’s directories rot for the past 8-10 years now. Theoretically that should provide an openning for another human-editted directory site (, anyone?). But computer categorized searches tend to not do so well. KartOO has been around for how long now, and still doesn’t much marketshare (although admittedly that could arguably be because of it’s scattered cartoony interface too).

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