Get the Picture: Visualizing the Future of Search

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Traditionally, Internet searching has been a two-dimensional process. You enter a couple of search terms in your favorite search tool and get a text list of results. You then try and find a useful site by clicking results in the first page or two. While this may work for some searches, it fails to take into account the complexity of many queries, in part because it gives equal weight to all results. Search engine users rarely venture into the Advanced Search features of the search engine and few know how to put together a Boolean query to hone search criteria that will then produce a few meaningful results.

In an effort to simplify the searching process and bring more meaning and context to the results, a number of search engines and tools have been developed over the last several years that present a visual map of the results, rather than a text list. By using a picture, these solutions offer a way for searchers to see the larger view of the results and get a sense of where the information fits in the context of a variety of results. While this may seem like an attractive alternative, search engines such as Yahoo! and Google are probably not going to be changing any time soon. But experts in the search engine field agree that visual searching has a place, especially in information-intensive markets such as finance, pharmaceutical, and law where information comes at a premium and where transforming ever-shifting data into actions is part of a day's work.

This article explores the current visual search market and looks at where the market may lead in the future.

What's Wrong with a List?
There's nothing inherently wrong with a list of results, but the more complex the search, the more difficult it becomes to manage the list and find the result you need. Alexander Dos Santos, marketing manager at visual search engine KartOO, asks, "If a user types the word ‘car', what kind of site do we have to offer?" He points out that a traditional search engine returns a linear list with manufacturers, rental agents, mechanics, collectors, and so forth with little context. "If I'm looking for rental car, I will be very disappointed to find a list of manufacturers and collectors," Dos Santos says.

Instead of pages of results listing sites, Dos Santos says his company pictured more of a road map so they could help users navigate the results. "We imagined cities instead of Web sites and instead of roads, common words linking destination sites. The user could zoom into thematic areas to improve the search," he says. Using the car example, the search engine divides the results into logical categories, making it easier for the user to zoom into the set of results that makes the most sense. "KartOO helps companies that need to see visual relationships between results," Dos Santos says.

Yet Search Engine expert Greg Notess, who runs, a Web site devoted to search engine research, doesn't see visual search tools making a significant impact on generalized search. In fact, he sees a movement on the Web away from graphics and towards text, as has happened with banner ads. "The growing ad movement is text-based ads because they are less in your face," Notess says. He also points out that visual search engines still face bandwidth issues. "I don't see visual displays of search results that are highly graphical taking over in the general Web search space," he says.

Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, agrees. He thinks broadband could help, but cautions that just because visual search engines have a wow-factor it doesn't mean they are going to replace mainstream search engines anytime soon. "Just because it looks cool doesn't mean it's useable," he says. Sullivan also wonders if the current generation of visual search tools actually does a good enough job of making the results clearer for users. "A lot of people are used to getting search results in a certain way. When you start changing that, it can throw them off," Sullivan says.

That said, both Sullivan and Notess believe that visual search engines have a place outside of the mainstream searching world in business intelligence scenarios, and that seems to be where the push for business in visual search is moving. "The area where I've heard of successful use of visual searching is people who are doing in-depth data mining or competitive intelligence," Notess says.


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