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Ask Correctly and Ye Shall Receive

By Wendy Rickard

One of the most common complaints heard about the Internet is that there’s too much junk out there. That may be true, but it’s not the real problem. The real problem is that it’s too easy to find the junk and too hard to find what you need. And unlike many other aspects of the Internet, this problem affects everyone on the Net -- from novices to experts, from users to developers, and from businesspeople to schoolteachers. 

A whole new generation is growing up with the Internet, and for them it will be a critically important tool for communication, education, research, business, employment, investment, and, most of all, social interaction. Regardless of how pundits and social critics characterize the dangers that grow alongside the massive mainstreaming of networked communications -- such as quality control, fraud, abuse, scamming, access to adult content, and stalking -- the Internet, like all inventions, cannot be undone. Just as the industrial revolution changed the nature of work -- which in turn changed how we functioned as communities and families -- the Internet is causing its own continental drift. And the new landscape will require new ways of addressing life’s priorities.

Both this and the previous issue of OnTheInternet (May/June 1998) take in-depth looks at the fastest-growing segment of Internet technology and use: search engines and directory services. Not only do search tools cut to the very core of Internet functionality; they also enable us to explore how the nature of our relationship with information is changing and, in some cases, being formed. Naturally, those of us who grew up with libraries, newspapers, and television interact with information differently than do those who are growing up in today’s technology-influenced and cyberworld environments.

Christine Maxwell -- ISOC trustee; creator of the Magellan Internet Guide, which was acquired by Excite in 1996; and the vision behind the McKinley group -- is no stranger to either traditional publishing or new technology. Maxwell, whose new company -- Chiliad -- is working on developing new ways of searching, possesses a unique perspective when it comes to searching. Over dinner recently in New York, she pointed out that when it comes to acquiring relevant information in an information-glutted world, the problem is that few know how to ask for what they want. And today’s search systems, she said, are still too focused on keyword searching.

It sounds like the perfect relationship -- one that is rarely achieved in human interaction, let alone human/technology interactions. A quick look through the self-help section of any bookstore gives proof enough that most people don’t know how to ask for what they want. And with divorce rates at an all-time high, it’s clear that with all our chatter, effective communication is not our species' strong suit. So it’s not surprising that a search engine is more likely than not to misunderstand what you want.

On another level, search engine companies are themselves interesting because they’re examples of some of the more successful business models in the Internet world. As reported in the New York Times (May 11, 1998, D1), none of the large search engine and directory companies are owned by the major media companies, and yet they represent a profitable, advertising-driven segment of the Internet. "[T]o capitalize on their current popularity," writes New York Times reporter Saul Hansell, "the search companies know they need to be much more than reference librarians." Now search sites feature a whole range of services, such as chat rooms, sports scores, and stock quotes, and as Hansell points out, brand loyalty gets generated through customization.

There is, however, more going on in the industry than just advertising-driven, keyword searching. Mark Stokes’s profile of Inquisit in this issue explores the potential of intelligent agents to take searching to a new levels: one whereby you create an electronic assistant that runs around the Internet looking for information you need and delivering it to you when you need it. Technology visionaries have long promised us that the grunt work in our lives eventually will be replaced by intelligent computers that serve our needs as both oracle and slave. It seemed a relief enough to be able to check airfares and book flights on the Internet. What companies like Inquisit are promising are electronic helpers that can plan a whole family vacation based on your personal preferences. Considering how much time I’ve spent searching on the Internet, rewards like that seem only fair. Now, if I can only get frequent-flier miles for every minute I’ve spent waiting for results

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