In 1984, Robin Williams starred in Moscow on the Hudson as a Russian saxophonist who decides to defect from the USSR during a shopping trip to a New York department store. One scene stands out, particularly to those of us who focus on search experience.
This scene, shown below, depicts the protagonist going to the supermarket to buy coffee. Expecting to find a “coffee line” where he will have to queue up to get a single kind of coffee, he is literally overwhelmed by the abundance of coffee options available to him in the “coffee aisle”.
Some people interpret this scene as either a celebration or a mockery of American free-market capitalism. But, as someone who works on search, I see a parable about information overload. …
When we design search applications, we aspire to make the user experience frictionless. A search engine should “just work”, enabling searchers to easily express their intent and responding with exactly the results searchers need.
Unfortunately, our search applications tend to fall short of our aspirations.
Evaluating and improving search experience starts with analyzing the queries searchers are making. But search queries are not the same as search intents.
I’m not talking about ambiguous queries like “java” or “jaguar” — examples that information retrieval researchers often use to illustrate how a single search query can map to multiple search intents. Ambiguous queries are fascinating in theory, but in practice they tend to be rare edge cases.
I’m talking about the opposite: when multiple queries mapping to the same intent. For example, queries like “mens shoes” and “shoes for men”.
Recognizing when two or more search queries represent the same intent opens up a variety of opportunities to improve the search experience. …