The Evolution Of Search For Business

Haystacks (Claude Monet)
Haystacks (Claude Monet)

In 2005 we were two years deep into the Iraqi war, a year removed from Boston’s first World Series championship in 80+ years, and smack dab in the middle of the search engine gold rush.

Google had made it clear that data mining was not only a lucrative venture, but safe as well (no canaries have died to this day during database dredging operations). The rush was on to either catch up with Google’s progress (see Microsoft’s Bing) or to get out of the innovation game altogether (see Yahoo!).

Found somewhere between the turf battle of the open web search giants were hundreds of thousands of domains of wide-ranging sizes and missions that had either developed their own search engines or licensed the best available in the market. From editorial to retail sites, search was quickly becoming the focus of product teams, as the browse culture had evolved into a find culture.

Data vs Proximity

That summer, after leaving Ameritrade and still indecisive about my next move, I had flown out to A9—Amazon’s search R&D team—to present ideas about “block view” proximity in the A9 Yellow Pages interface. The context of the presentation was within a ux design interview with Udi Manber and my old Billsville pal, DeWitt Clinton, but the more I prepared back in Jersey City for a proximity UI presentation, the more my understanding of the needs of users within the context of search drew my focus elsewhere.

By the time I had left for Palo Alto, I knew I wouldn’t be a serious candidate for the job; I had fashioned a presentation around the value of structured data for retailers in a Yellow Pages experience, not proximity. This was pre-smartphones, and the ask was a desktop interface.

I ended up moving away from proximity as I skimmed through a physical Yellow Page, taking notes on my own scanning needs and findability patterns. It became clear to me that while proximity of the store from my location within the context of its own block was useful, it fell squarely in a secondary position when compared to the task of actually pinpointing a store that could serve me my specific needs.

If I’m going to get in my car and drive to a brick & mortar store, it had better have what I need to purchase.

That notion became even more self-evident when taking a spin with the existing A9 Yellow Pages interface, as inventory and/or service details weren’t exposed at the return level. Conversely, proximity was found everywhere, and while proximity might help someone find the store, and such relevance is an inherent partner in presenting search returns, it’s customer query-matching data from individual businesses that should lead this tango.

For example: the modern day Google search experience expresses this axiom in a number of ways, including:

  • a query for – [city] movies – returns an elegant display of available movies and showtimes in particular city, presenting multiple sources of aggregated reviews, a trailer, synopsis, cast list and online availability
  • a query for – [ethnic type] restaurant – returns a display featuring local restaurants that meet the type criteria, presented within the context of proximity from my current location
  • a query for – [ethnic] food menu [city] – returns a display featuring the most popular local establishment’s menu as structured data (if managed within the Google My Business environment)

search engine illustration

Google understood as early as 2006 that supporting the needs of businesses and their customers by exposing relevant data was a complex task, one that centered around data collection. So as they iterated their algorithmic approach to presenting more accurate business/customer results in their popular, revenue-driving primary search product, they began to focus on launching more structured “human-generated” data products related to business needs.

  • In 2006, Apps for Your Domain became the first attempt to harness the multitude of online needs for businesses.
  • Then came the merger of their Local Business Center—which had allowed for the collection of business-related data—with Places in 2010, creating an even more fluid experience of claiming and enriching representations of a business experience online.
  • Pages launched in 2011 (recently becoming My Business), which allowed businesses to expose their structured data, making it even more findable by potential customers, clients, partner businesses, etc. via a search query or when represented in the G+ environment.

In 2015, with the knowledge graph, graph panels and entity search in play, Google can now present a range of instantaneous, smart, semantic results to meet user queries, including those of customers looking for specifics from businesses, but they still need well-structured content to parse when an algorithmically informed guess can’t do the job.

So without relying on the market to do it on their own, their business products keep pushing the ball forward, including Google Reviews and the notion of us all being Local Guides.

Smartphones have changed search behavior over the years, and as such, proximity has claimed its own place in the search game. That said, just as I imagined when prepping for that presentation of an explicit Yellow Pages product more than a decade ago, finding the data match to a customer’s need still comes first.

Back To The Future

A decade ago the potential for interfaces to support multivariate needs in a humane fashion were just becoming understandable, let alone practical.

The reality of shipping a UI that explicitly reflected the underlying technology or database rather than the mental model of the user was beginning to wear thin. User experience began to steadily climb towards an understandable notion, on levels far beyond usability into usefulness and how it actually affects brand and the bottom line.

My presentation framed a number of explicit design principles that would optimize for usefulness in the interface. Regardless of the results of the data/proximity discussion I planned on undertaking, it was important to establish that the experience would need to be humane:

After presenting such UX axioms, I walked through the primary scenarios of the existing product. The most frustrating aspect of the customer query -> connect with business task centered around the most basic, yet complex element of search recall:

  • “coffee” in “palo alto” – returned 77 results in an interface steeped in proximity elements, such as distance from current location and a hyper-local map display
  • “coffee” and “donut” in “palo alto” – returned only 2 results, so either 75 of the previous coffee shops don’t have donuts, or the data isn’t being made available at time of query
  • “coffee” and “doughnut” in “palo alto” – returned only 1 result, and it wasn’t one of the previous two listings

There’s no kind way to tell a product team—one that has flown you clear across the country to present a vision for their interface—that no matter what we do in the interface, that the current product focus is not on point.

The toughest challenge for the Yellow Pages product wasn’t proximity, it was figuring out a way to garner a rich collections of meta-data representative of inventory for their search to parse and return. My perspective was to empower business owners to tag their services, leverage existing user reviews as metadata, and open up APIs to provide structured data for search to leverage:

  • If the business object model is a restaurant, provide an simple menu input interface on the front-end, or offer to pull in data from a popular 3rd party service
  • If the business object model is a hardware store, provide an API to connect with the domain’s inventory database
  • Etc.

Do everything you can to make it impossible for me—the customer who is searching for a specific type of wrench—to miss out on spending money at the Ma & Pa hardware store 15 minutes away that I’d rather support than a warehouse store just down the street, simply because the name of the store doesn’t have “wrench” in it.

A year after our meeting, block view and Yellow Pages were shut down by Amazon— which seemed to indicate that a focus on Amazon-available products became the priority—while Google began on a path towards creating a decentralized, modern day “Yellow Pages” product centered around business data and customer needs.

Amazon now dominates product search through its own interface, leaving proximity of brick & mortar to Google. Their shift into creating physical products such as Kindle & Echo while launching their own original entertainment studio for delivery on Prime, marks a wicked understanding of market opportunities and innovation.

And the band plays on.

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