What does the AOL search data say about me

I promise this will be the last I have to say about the AOL stuff for a while… but where does my name show up in those millions of searches? Well, mostly as a result. People searching for the following things ended up going to my blog from AOL:

* april adult star
* buy marriage license cheap
* see dead for me
* google .cam
* ave maria florida
* sharks of the east coast

Of course, I could probably figure these out from my server logs. (Actually, I’m not sure, for AOL search, but I’m guessing I can.) I suspect that most of these people were disappointed with what they found. I am guessing that the “google .cam” search and the “ave maria” search actually hit something substantive, but the rest were fruitless. But I can improve my guesses.

The AOL data allows me to get a further idea of whether this is true, by looking over what they searched for after these phrases. Reading through the search histories really does provide some voyeuristic entertainment. The person searching for “april adult star” looks like he or she came up empty handed, with my blog and with the other choice from the responses. (Had “adult star” been constrained, it would have yielded better results.) After well over a hundred searches for porn (including “hot moms” and “debbie does dallas”) some interesting searches show up at the end, for things like “quilts show.” The final search in the list is, surprisingly, the Wedding Channel. There are a number of stories that could go with this history, including multiple users.

Another search history is thousands of searches long, and represents a disturbing set of searches over a long period of time. It is disturbing not only for the content (which includes searches for suicide techniques, reporting abuse, and images of dead bodies), but because it contains significant identifying information.

Finally, the search for sharks. Everyone knows that west coast shark attacks are the best, and the only type covered by this blog. But the searcher, after looking for information on sharks off the jersey shore, apparently leaves unsatisfied.

The take away from the records I’ve looked at is that people, at least on AOL search, aren’t getting what they are looking for. This could be interpreted two ways. First, they don’t know how to search–they choose strange combinations of keywords, and sometimes (and I suspect this is more likely on AOL than on other search engines) enter the URL into the search bar. Of course, it’s not fair to blame the user, but it does seem like it would be worthwhile to have the search experience be educational for the user.

For example, it wouldn’t be that hard to suggest to a user that “adult star” (since that is a term that likely shows up with some frequency in the index) might want to be constrained so that the two terms appear together on the page. You don’t want to do it for the user, and I am no fan of the Microsoft Paperclip, but Google already suggests alternatives, and I think this could be very useful to the user.

Did you mean to search for “adult star”?

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  1. Posted 8/16/2006 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    It sounds cruel, but I am frequently amazed, looking through server logs and my Statcounter results, how many AOL (and MSN search) users have found entirely irrelevant pages on my websites using odd search strings, and then bothered to spend a few minutes (in many cases) looking through the site, presumably in an attempt to see if other pages contain the information they’re looking for.

    And it really is mostly AOL and MSN users – the latest trend, though, which Google’s genericide-fighting lawyers aren’t going to like – is the use of the verb ‘google’ within the search string on _another search engine_ as if it were a requirement to include this verb to get the search engine to search for you. (I wonder if that’s the reason behind your “google .cam” above?) I’ve had strings such as “google ways to stop kids skateboards” – typed into AOL – almost as if someone working in an office somewhere has been told to “Go and google it” and is unaware of exactly what that means.

    I think generally, as you say, the search experience with AOL and some other search interfaces, doesn’t help the user to learn how to get the most out of searching in the same way that Google does – especially with the suggestions of ‘better’/more appropriate ways of phrasing the query.

    There are also just too many instances of people’s search strings being entire sentences – and they’re not looking for that whole sentence as an enclosed quote string, but are almost doing the ‘Ask Jeeves’ thing of trying to ask the search engine a question. It’s kind of embarrassing!

  2. alex
    Posted 8/16/2006 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I have to admit to the lazy “Ask Jeeves” to google approach. Sometime’s it’s a good cognitive shortcut to getting at the right keywords.

    As for the google in the search term: I wonder if these are people who are used to using Firefox (where you can type google X for a lookup), and have simply hit the wrong window…

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