THE USES OF SEARCH VOYEURS
You probably know that most of the search engines let you listen in on what's being searched, whether with a real-time search voyeur that lets you see some of the search terms currently being processed, or with a summary system. What you may not be doing is using this information as a current awareness tool, a system that can acquaint you with hot new topics, personalities and software, and that can show you more about how users ask their questions. We can use all this information to improve the timeliness and usability of our web pages.
A couple of years back, for instance, the hottest search term was MP3. Knowing this, we could have created pages telling out users where to find the software, how to download it, and where to find MP3 files. We could have been not only timely and helpful, but downright hip.
One of the more interesting of these sites is Yahoo's Buzz Tracker http://buzz.yahoo.com/. While this site opens on a "snapshot" of recent activity, including overall top "movers" and top movers for sports, TV movies, music, it also lets you view all the movers by category and see all the top movers for an entire week, which gives you better trend information. Better still, you can click on previous weeks' compilations for longer term trend data.
Yahoo is also a news source that allows people not only to read news, but to e-mail stories to other people and set up personal news trackers. That means Yahoo can tell you which stories were most frequently viewed (currently, Jay Leno unplugs, stocks fall, Justin and Britney aren't dead), and most frequently e-mailed to others (currently, prostate cancer's link to number of partners, a stroller recall, Justin and Britney aren't dead). It also tells you which keywords are most commonly used in personal news tracking (currently President Bush, Colin Powell, European Union, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and New York Stock Exchange).
Ask Jeeves' Peek through the Keyhole (http://www.askjeeves.com/docs/peek/ allows you to see what questions are being asked right now, automatically refreshing itself every 30 seconds. These can't possibly be the actual questions people are asking, incidentally; no normal human being would ask "Where can I find demographic information for the country South Korea?" or "Where can I find information on the animal chimpanzee?" When you ask a question like "statistics for Korea," or "find information on chimps," Ask Jeeves will come back with a set of questions it has answers for, and it seems clear that these are Ask Jeeves' modified questions which people then clicked on.
On Ask Jeeves for Kids (http://www.ajkids.com/), the opening screen automatically shows current questions being asked. This is a much more interesting way of showing people how they can ask questions than any help screen ever written, especially since few people ever click on the help screen.
On the Lycos 50 Daily Report (http://50.lycos.com/) the top 50 search terms used each day is only one of the interesting pieces of information available (this week Dragonball, Britney Spears and tattoos are the top queries). It also gives you trend information, with movement up or down from last week's Top 50, and the number of weeks the topic has been in the top 50 (Dragonball has been the top query for four weeks, and in the top 50 for 95 weeks).
Something Lycos does here is worth imitating -- the links for each of the top hits lead to its own category pages for those topics rather than to an offsite home page, which is an excellent way to show your stuff as an information expert. The Lycos 50 site also features a new article every day about an up-and-comer.
Amont the other search voyeurs are Metacrawler Metaspy (http://www.metaspy.com/), where you can choose the filtered or unfiltered version, depending on whether or not you wish to continue to think well of your fellow humans, Kanoodle.com (http://www.kanoodle.com/spy/spy.cool, Search.com Snoop (http://www.search.com/snoop), and Crosslinkz Search Engine (http://www.crosslinkz.com/), where you can view both current searches and popular search terms.
What did I learn today going through this exercise? I found that file swapping software of all kinds remains immensely popular despite all the lawsuits filed by the Recording Industry Association; they can co-opt Napster, but they can't stop new Napster-like software like gnutella, morpheus, and iMesh from springing up to take its place.
I found that the most common use of search engines is for info on pop culture. You usually have to get down to about the 18th most common term before you find one that is not related to games, Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, tattoos, TV shows, movies, WWF and such.
I found that non pop-culture queries are largely news driven -- WWII monument, tax refunds, meningitis, national traffic highway safety administration, Jenna Bush, etc. They are also influenced by season; many of the current requests are for amusement parks, camping info, travel information, water sports, and such.
I got a good insight on how people ask questions. Mostly, they ask one and two word queries, often quite vague, suggesting the importance of a search engines features for refining searches by suggesting smaller categories to search through, or related terms or "other users have asked these questions". A very few users do know enough to ask the question several different ways -- pretty clearly the same person was inputting the sequence "home based business," "homebased business," "business from home."
Many users obviously haven't grasped even basic principles like inputting a URL directly in the address box ("where can I find the web site bridalplanner.com?" How can I book a hotel room on Expedia.com?"), and, as we all know, many of them can't spell (Bill Russel, boys culb, komoto dragon, gneutella, hiliday inn, snowbaord pics). It's apparent that if we offer search engines for our web sites and catalogues, we need one like Amazon's, that suggests alternative spellings.
Of course an exercise like this also makes you realize there are some things we really might not want to know about our searchers -- why did someone wish to know about "worship my feet"? But those are the kinds of questions they are unlikely to ever approach the reference desk with. Thank God.
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What this evolution illustrates is that publishers will not go away, but that they cannot be complacent. Publishers must serve the values of both authors and readers. If they try to enforce an artificial scarcity, charge prices that are too high or otherwise violate the norms of their target community, they will encourage that community to self-organize, or new competitors will emerge who are better attuned to the values of the community.
Tim O'Reilly. "Nature Debates: Information Wants To Be Valuable." http://www.nature.com/nature/debates/e-access/
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.
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