Why would you switch search engines?

Stéphane asks why any one would switch from Google given that it has become such a part of net culture.

People will switch for a faster time-to-answer.

Recently I needed to find the Microsoft Knowledge Base article that explained why you shouldn't run IE components (such as MSHTML) inside a server process. I knew the KB existed, but I didn't have the URL off-hand and I needed to send it to a co-worker.

That meant I needed to search for it, and like everyone else in the world I first went to Google, but it didn't answer my question directly. Below I have added some additional "analysis" for your enjoyment.

My search query, stated in the most natural way (at least for me), is "Why can't I run MSHTML on the server?"

Here are the results for some common search engines:

· Google -- Some interesting hits, but nothing looks good (note I'm only skimming titles, not the excerpts)

· Yahoo -- Pretty much the same as Google

· MSN -- Pretty much the same as Google

· MSN (Beta) -- LOL! My Firefox blog comes up first, for no apparent reason!

· Microsoft -- My mum always said, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"

OK, so that didn't work.

I decided that natural language isn't going to work, and I also remembered that the KB tends to specifically talk about ASP (rather than servers in general) so I rephrase my question to "MSHTML ASP not supported":

· Google -- Nope

· Yahoo -- Nope

· MSN -- Nope

· MSN (Beta) -- Some interesting-looking results, but nope

· Microsoft -- It's the last result on the first page, but it's there: http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;244085

As you can see, none of the engines are perfect (and really, Microsoft's search of its own web site should be able to do better...). Admittedly, we could do a much better job with our metadata in KB articles to match "expected" search queries, but ideally the technology should work for us, not the other way around.

Searching aimlessly wastes time, and time is money. I wasted (say) five minutes of my time getting this query for my co-worker, since I had tried several variations and followed several dead-ends before hitting success with "MSHTML ASP not supported". Note that in this case I knew exactly what I was looking for, so I only had to scan the titles. Imagine if I had had to click on every single link returned by every search result to determine if it was what I wanted or not? I could have wasted hours.

Now imagine if every Microsoft employee spent five minutes a day on searching. That's about fifty thousand people times five minutes, or...

·250,000 minutes; or

·4,167 hours; or

·174 days; or

·25 weeks; or

·6 months

That's unbelievable -- we'd lose six person-months of productivity every single day if each employee spent five minutes on a simple search task. Obviously, there are other things we lose much more than six person-months of productivity on every day... like toilet breaks... but they're somewhat unavoidable.

If there was a search engine that could translate a natural-language search to the correct result the first time, every time, Microsoft (and every other company on the planet) would save a boat-load of cash because their employees would be more productive. And it's not just about the evil money-grabbing corporations, either. Say you have a screaming baby or a bleeding nose or a leaking toilet and you want to make it stop. Would you rather get the answer in five minutes, or in five seconds? πŸ™‚ [Google, Yahoo, MSN, MSN (Beta), Microsoft - LOL]

I'm not saying that Microsoft (or anyone else, for that matter) could ever solve this problem, but the point is that people will switch to a better product. Remember when DEC's AltaVista was the search engine back in the day? I even had their version of "desktop search" installed on my home machine almost a decade ago... the more things change, the more they stay the same.

[Oh and please don't bother posting any comments about "switching to a better product" and Firefox... I already know what you're going to say πŸ˜‰ ]

Comments (16)

  1. Another place you can search when you are looking for KB articles is the KB search site at http://support.microsoft.com/search/default.aspx (Q244085 is 8th on the list there).

  2. Phil Weber says:

    Hi, Peter: FWIW, I found the article on my first attempt (fourth result) with this query: <http://www.google.com/search?q=not+run+MSHTML+on+server+site%3Asupport.microsoft.com&gt;. If you know you’re looking for a KB article, Google’s site: search can usually find it pretty quickly.

  3. What most people are looking for is "authoritative answers" and simply timely lists of "search results". That is, authoritative answers that are 1. timely but also 2. relevent and 3. complete.

    The best example is to think of the last time you received a response/resolution from a support call (a form of human-mediated answer searching). Whether it is a help desk, a product support organization, etc. how many times did the answer fail to be relavent or complete or it took too long.

    People should be looking to search engines for authoritative answers …not just lists of "search results".

  4. Peter Torr says:

    Yeah, I actually have a shortcut setup for googling site:microsoft.com but for some reason this time it didn’t work.

    Maybe I was in too much of a hurry to actually think of a good query that I spent longer trying lots of bad queries πŸ˜‰

    But… that’s the point! πŸ˜‰ The technology needs to take our first attempt at a search (and no weird syntax like site:microsoft.com) and give us good, authoritative, timely results.

  5. Steve Hall says:

    I think you’ve exposed a pretty good point justifying the use of multiple search engines…trying to reduce the response time.

    But I think you’re being a little disingenious about your rationale: a lot of people (read: developers) who are looking for a specific KB article published by a certain software vendor would START looking at that vendor’s KB, THEN use alternate search engines. (If I were looking for a Sun KB article, I would use Sun’s KB search engine FIRST, then other engines…)

    Now, your point that the MS KB search engine should be better is a good one. This is what has led many developers to modify their search behavior to using an alternate search engine BEFORE the MS KB search engine. (I constantly see complaints about this…)

    Hopefully, the constant din of complaints about poor results ranking will help the MS KB search engine to be improved. Possibly, a series of search hints should be displayed for ambiguous search criteria. Some of this is accomplished with the "Did you mean?" results, but those are obviously results of finding "sound-alike" mispelled words. I’m thinking more of messages to give the user hints about avoiding the use the "noise words" that are simply ignored, and other suggestions to get the user to form the search string in a more "regular vocabulary"… (Such hints might have helped you in your vain attempt to a natural language as a search string.)

    Out of morbid curiousity I tried this search on the one notable new search engine that’s missing from your list: A9.com. It succeeds on the "MSHTML ASP not supported" string, but only if you double quote the two words "not" and "supported". It shows up around 40 down from the top of the list, which isn’t too bad.

    Also, oddle enough, double quoting those two words for the MS KB search engine didn’t have any effect: all the results in the first 10 on the first page were exactly the same. This caused me to reread (for the 239th time) the search help, only to be find (for the 239th time) that the MS KB search engine doesn’t honor double quotes. (Well, at least it doesn’t say so…and the results don’t show it happening.) I’ve noticed this before, and have previously complained about this years ago, but always got smarmy little replies from the Tech. Support folks "in charge" that "the search engine’s algorithm does it that way cause it knows better than you!" This is one feature of that search engine that has GOT to be changed!

    Now, also out of morbifd curiousity, I checked the MSDN search engine, and sure enough got different results! The article shows up #7 instead of #10. This is the reason I ALWAYS use the MSDN search engine FIRST, rather than the MS-wide search engine. But, as with the MS search engine, double quotes have no effect… (That drives me nuts! Double quoting the two words with A9.com mean the difference between success and not…which indicates they honor quotes. Similarly for all other search engines. It seems the search algorithm wizards at MS need to change their thinking about quotes!)

    The big point of your article is a good one. One that I often tell my junior programmers: "The best survival skill you can develop for yourself is the ability to find out (discover) the nugget of knowledge you so need! Rote memorization of trivia, like ‘what’s the second parameter of a CreateProcess call?’, isn’t a survival skill!"

    (I was actually asked the above trivia question in an interview for a high-level Windows application developer job years ago. It remains as evidence of nutso nature of interviews, with young programmers putting up Klingon-style pain-stick gauntlets of silly trivia questions in an effort to prove that the older programmer they’re interviewing is "obselete"… I walked out of that interview when it became apparent they wanted Jeopardy winners rather than those that could discover easily what they didn’t know.)

  6. Most developers find that using google to search Microsoft’s web site is far quicker and more accurate than using Microsoft’s own search engine.

    As far as using the site:support.microsoft.com tag, that’s merely a shorthand (and convenience). You may, instead, use google’s advanced search page for the same results.

  7. Peter Torr says:

    Steve — thanks for your comment.

    The main point of the article wasn’t that knowing how to find stuff is an important skill (although I completely agree with you).

    The point of the article was that today’s search technology sucks and people will use something better if it comes along πŸ˜‰

  8. "MSHTML on server site:microsoft.com" does it for me.

  9. Peter Torr says:

    That LinkTron 5000 is pretty cool πŸ˜‰

    Stephane: Sure, you can get a good result… but the trouble today is that you have to write a query that the engine is happy with. Ideally the engine should be happy with the query you write.

  10. John C. Kirk says:

    The amusing thing is that this blog entry now shows up as #3 on Google, so they have improved in the last few days πŸ™‚

  11. Peter Torr says:

    Heh, so now all the engines have the right query near the top (except the Microsoft search, which doesn’t crawl weblogs.asp.net)

    Moral of the story: If you want a phrase to appear high in search results, bribe a blogger to write about it πŸ˜‰

  12. 1) The Linktron 5000 is mighty funky indeed!

    2) Blogs still get a REALLY high ranking on engines due to their rapidly changing nature, and high linkage. I’m surprised at the number of things for which my blog shows up as #1 link. The problem is, that I’ve blogged that I can’t solve a problem, and then I’ll go back and google some more another day, and I’ll keep finding MY question at the top of the list πŸ™

  13. ollie dalton says:

    ironic perhaps, but when i am looking for answers on a microsoft problem i usually start with technet. when that fails (which is invariably the case) i go to google and this often (3 times in 4 say) points me back to a technet document that answers my question!

    the problem can only get worse – the more information humans generate the harder it is for humans to find what humans need! πŸ˜‰

  14. The lost person-days is actually more drastic than you have surmised. You appear to have made a common error when calculating the lost time, and that is that people will work 24*7*365. In reality, this just doesn’t happen. If you factor a 8 hour work day, 40 hour work week and 50 week working year you get:

    ·250,000 minutes; or

    ·4,167 hours; or

    ·521 days; or

    ·104 weeks; or

    ·25 months; or

    ·2 years 1 month

    This is the actual work time lost. This is a remarkable amount of productivity lost to such a trivial task.

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