I sometimes get so caught up in the wealth of information available on the web that I lose sight of how far we still have to go in search. The other day I was helping someone unfamiliar with the web use a search engine to perform what should have been a simple task and it was a significant reminder of how undeveloped the search industry really is. Having been in the technology industry for some time now, I have a natural tendency to defend our machines. People new to using these tools have pretty lofty expectations -- "the computer can just do that, right?" Invariably my role goes from apologist to apologizer as I find myself saying: "well it is really a very complicated thing we are asking the computer to do..."
The Task: Use a Search Engine to Find a Restaurant
Not just any restaurant though, we wanted a place nearby, that served Latin American cuisine from a Spanish speaking country, from South (not Central) America. So sure, since our quest was a school project, our restaurant search was a little different than most - but not that different. And explaining to the uninitiated why any combination of: Seattle, Restaurant, Latin America, Spanish, Central America did not produce the desired results in any of the search engines was humbling. Defending the most used command line interface of our day by saying: "when I was a kid we didn't even have the web." didn't add much to the conversation either.
Our Solution: This is a "Short" cut?
After several attempts with results of either restaurants from other cities (in one case the third entry in the search results was for an establishment in New York) or an overwhelming list of Mexican eateries, or news about the earthquake in Chile, I developed a new strategy. We would search for recipes for dishes from Argentina, find one with a really distinct name, and search for that! Argentina because it had not just had a natural disaster, and distinct name so the search engines would not get too mixed up with unrelated results. Presto! Not really presto actually because this meandering route through 15 or 20 search queries took much longer than either of us wanted to spend. First to cooking sites, then to ethnic cooking sights, then to Argentinian cooking sights, then look through the recipes before deciding that "empanada" was just the right mix of common and unique for the search engines, then enter "Seattle Restaurant Empanada" and what do you know -- half way down the second page of results we found one that was only 10 miles away! At one point I had to wonder if there isn't a Latin American Restaurant section right in the Yellow Pages! I would never know of course because for the last ten years I have taken the phone books straight from my front porch to the recycle bin.
So all of this is to say that as enamored as we are with the tools we have today -- the truth is that their capabilities are severely limited. We are just getting started in search and someone could invent the next Google tomorrow.