Search 1.0: Search Engines Still Lack Simple Features

Search EnginesI have a sister who, over the weekend, pointed out a major shortcoming of search engines. It’s so obvious that I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it first. And keep in mind that this is my sister, which arguably boosts the creditability of this anecdotal story. That is, this isn’t some nerd’s dream come true; rather, she’s fairly representative of “regular” people trying to utilize the Internet practically. So here it is:

Why can’t you organize your results by date? And why don’t the search results themselves include the date each entry was published/updated?

For all I know, there is some search engine somewhere that might be working on this very problem. But for now, the four biggest (Google, Microsoft Live/MSN, Yahoo, and Ask) give us little to nothing. And this is for a feature that would be fairly simple to just turn on. All of them (except Microsoft) will let you enable a related feature in their “Advanced Search” options so that only search results from the past X amount of time show up as part of your query.

But for being an “advanced” feature, it’s extremely simplistic. In every case, you pick a preset amount of time (one month, three months, one year, etc.). How hard would it be to have a little calendar pop up for you to choose: “I want my search results to be limited to content published/updated from X date to Y date.” This feature exists when you search your computer for files or emails, why not for the Internet?

And of the four search engines mentioned, Google is the only one that comes close to showing you date information in the search results themselves, but only if you’re searching for results in the past 24 hours. Otherwise, it’s just like the others: you don’t know anything about the date of any of the results on the page until you click through each of them one by one.

Each of these search engines boasts some sort of secret sauce that theoretically gives you the most “relevant” results first. But how are they to know how sensitive your query might be to the date? And let’s face it, for the millions of results that come back for any almost any term you put into a search engine, you rarely go past the first page of 10.

So why not have an “advanced” feature that lets you sort your results page by page (to keep the magic relevancy)? Depending on your search, Google may think result #5 deserves to be result #5, but any results (out of millions) that land on the same page of 10 are likely to be very close in relevancy. So why not let me sort the page I’m viewing?

The more I think about this topic, the more I find it disappointing just how limiting online search can be. Think of anything else in your life that utilizes some form of organization. Now remove specific dates as part of that organization and add a magic wizard that convinces you that it just know what you need; dates have limited relevancy. You might be convinced, that is, until the first time you need to search for something where the date is relevant.

  • This would be an amazing feature especially for students or researchers. I know there have been plenty of times where I have been working on research type projects and consistently found information that was related to my topic, but incredibly out dated. It would have been great to have been able to sort by date and find the most recent information. This is especially true when you’re researching computer information. I find articles dating back to 2003 or 2004, and in a lot of cases that information is no longer valid.

  • Paul Ellis

    I would use it all the time too. You have to admit that the main thing that has changed with web search over the last 5 years is the size of the index. All of the companies have really left their search where is was (more or less) and have just searched more pages, or applied the search to images, shopping, news, etc, but haven’t really enhanced their web search. That’s why I just can’t believe it when people act like it would be impossible for any company to topple Google’s grip.

  • I’m guessing that one plausible reason would be, enabling “search by date” might also expose some of the shortcomings in the search engines’ spiders. We know there is so much content they don’t crawl every day… but it is likely in their best overall interest to keep awareness of that fact to a minimum…

  • Too true, Paul, but someone needs to point out the obvious. I’m not sure if search engines will listen to me much, but their formula and options haven’t appeared to change much for years (as far as we consumers can see on the surface).

    It’s time for some real innovation in search, folks, Google is so last century!

  • I often find myself trying to track down the original source of an item that appears thousands of times on the Internet. So far, the only search engine I’ve found with a good date component is I’m not sure why others can’t do the same.