What are you searching for?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the limits of current search technology, of the fact that people don’t want to scan pages of blue links anymore. The new goal, as evidenced by the work of legions of energetic startups, is to bring you what you are looking for and present it to you intuitively, effortlessly.  People who are seeking answers or products and services out in the digital universe will be freed from the tedious artifacts of current search; a user won’t have to think in terms of pages, keywords, links and clicks, but will instead be presented with a highly distilled and personalized set of solutions gleaned through the clever mining of the information-rich world of social media and the wizardry of next-generation algorithms.  It sounds pretty appealing.  Mostly.

If I’m shopping for shoes or an interesting new restaurant, I can well imagine the beyond-search technology would be a big win. I often take a look at the suggested ‘similar items’ that current websites dish up when I’m examining or buying a product there. And the product reviews can be quite useful. Beyond-search technology will provide us this type of thing in spades — just the super relevant stuff — just for us.  Do you enjoy having someone make you your favorite meal and serve it to you? How about if they also cut up the food on the plate and feed it to you?

If I’m really exercising my mind to explore a topic, a new idea, something complicated and not well-defined (to me, or in general), I care about the sources of the information, how reliable they are.  This usually involves formulating multiple sets of keywords to search on, and sifting through the resulting hits leads to other, yet-to-be-formulated sets of concepts to explore. In these cases, what is relevant isn’t known ahead of time and the trail to knowledge can be esoteric, convoluted and take you far out on the long tail of available information. Initiating the cross-referencing myself is vital to this type of process.  I might decide to not buy a dress online if 20 reviewers complain about its quality, but I’ll need to search a lot deeper to decide on questions such as whether I’d participate in the clinical trial of a new drug, or whether a politician is telling the truth, or what the relationship is (if any) between ocean temperature and cloud formation.  I want to follow those blue links (or their proxy) in order to peruse and compare source materials — a summary with a consensus rating in these cases is not sufficient to answer the question.

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