Search, And You Probably Won't Find

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If I asked you what they manufacture in Seattle, I'd guess you'd say "software and aeroplanes". Obviously I'm biased, so Microsoft is the first name to spring to mind. And I discovered from a recent Boeing factory tour that they build a few 'planes there now and then. You might also, after some additional thought, throw in "coffee shops" (Starbucks) and "book stores" (Amazon). But I bet you didn't include "doorbells" in your list.

I know about the doorbells because I just bought a SpOre push button from a UK distributor and it proudly says "Made in Seattle" on the side of the box. Unless there is another Seattle somewhere else in the world, I'll assume that somebody expert in working with aluminium got fed up nailing wings onto 747s and left to set up on their own. Though you have to wonder about the train of thought when creating their business plan. "Hmmm, I'm an expert in building massively complex, high-tech, hugely expensive pieces of equipment so I think I'll make doorbells..."

But the point of this week's wandering ramble is not specifically doorbells (a subject in which, I'll admit, I'm not an expert). What started this was the time and effort required to actually find the item in the first place. We don't live anywhere near a city that contains one of those idiosyncratic designer showrooms, and I tend not to spend my weekends at building exhibitions. So, when my wife decides that she wants "something different" in terms of hardware, furniture, or other materialistic bauble that the average DIY store doesn't stock, I typically end up trailing through endless search engine results trying to track down products and suppliers.

Inevitably, what seems like an obvious set of search terms fails to locate the desired items. For example, rather than the usual "black plastic box and white button" that typifies the height of doorbell-push style here in England, searching for "contemporary doorbell push" just finds tons of entries for shopping comparison sites, ugly Victorian-style ironmongery, a few rather nasty chrome things, and (of course) hundreds of entries on EBay. I finally found the link to the SpOre distributor on what felt like page 93.

Much the same occurred when searching for somebody who could supply a decent secure aluminium front door to replace the wooden one we have now (which was already rotting away before the ice-age winter we just encountered here). It took many diligent hours Binging and Googling to find a particularly well-disguised construction suppliers contact site, which linked to a manufacturer in Germany, who finally forwarded my email to a garage door installation company here in England. When I looked at their site, it was obvious that they did exactly what we wanted, but there was pretty much zero chance of finding them directly through a web search.

And, not satisfied with all this aggro, it seems that the door manufacturers in Germany won't put a letter box slot in the door. They can't believe that anyone buying a properly insulated secure entrance door would want to cut a hole in it just for people to shove letters though (they tell me that only people in the UK do stupid things like this), so I have to figure out another way to provide our post lady with the necessary aperture for our mail. The answer is a proper "through the wall post box", and I'll refrain from describing the web search hell resulting from locating a UK supplier for one of these.

Of course, the reason for the web search hell is that I don't know the name of the company I want before I actually find it. If I search for "spore doorbells" or "hormann doors", the site I want is top of the list. Yet, despite entering a bewildering array of door-oriented search terms, all that comes up unless you include the manufacturer's name is a list of double-glazing companies advertising plastic panelled doors with flower patterns; or wooden doors that wouldn't look out of place on a medieval castle.

The problem is; how do you resolve this? There are obviously lots of very clever people working on the issue; and for website owners the solution is, I suppose, experience in the black art of search engine optimization (SEO). But there are only a limited number of obvious generic search terms - none of which are unique - compared to the millions of sites out there that may contain marginally relevant content. It seems that only searches for a product name (a registered trade mark) can really get you near to the top of the list. Even the sponsored links that most sites now offer are little help unless you can afford to pay whatever it costs to get your site listed whenever someone searches for a non-unique word such as "door". Meanwhile, most product and shopping comparison sites are more about how cheap you can buy stuff than helping you find what you are looking for.

One alternative is the tree-style organization of links. When done well, this can be a great way to help you find specific items. Most search engines have a Categories section that allows you to narrow the search by category, but the logic still depends on how the search engine analysed the page content. It's really just an intelligent filter over the millions of matching hits in the original list of results. It's easier, of course, if you only need to find something within a site that can manage the content and categorization directly. An example is the B&Q website at http://www.diy.com - and when you consider the vast number of lines they stock it makes it really easy to navigate down through the categories to find, for example, 25mm x 6mm posidrive zinc plated single thread woodscrews.

Mind you, tree navigation is not always ideal either. Some products will fit well in more than one category, while others may not logically fit into any category other than the useless "Miscellaneous" one. And once the tree gets to be very deep, it's easy to get lost - even when there is a breadcrumb indicator. It's like those automated telephone answering systems where you only find out that you should have pressed 3 at the main menu instead of 2 once you get two more levels down. And then you can't remember which option you chose last time when you start all over again. But at least with a phone system you can just select "speak to a customer advisor...".

I remember reading years ago about the Resource Description Framework (RDF). Now part of the W3C Semantic Web project, RDF has blossomed to encompass all kinds of techniques for navigating data and providing descriptive links across topic areas. It allows you to accurately define the categories, topics, and meaning of the content and how it relates to other content. So a site could accurately specify that it contained information in the categories "Construction/Doors/Entrance/Residential/Aluminium/Contemporary" and "Building Products/Installers/Windows and Doors/Residential/". And, best of all, RDF supports the notion of graphs of information, so that an RDF-aware search engine can make sensible decisions about selecting relevant information.

Yet it's hard to see how, without an unbelievably monumental retrofit effort across all sites, this can resolve the issue. It does seem that, for the foreseeable future, we are all destined to spend many wasted hours paging and clicking in vain.

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Search, And You Probably Won't Find