Search engines still sputtering along

One of the first things I noticed after I started using the Web in 1995 was how bad search engines were at finding information. I felt empowered at suddenly having access to a lot of information, but also frustrated at the time and effort it took to find and compile the data I needed. I soon realized I wasn't alone in feeling that way. As Web usage surged in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, users shared a common complaint: search engines suck.

But feeling optimistic, I told myself that we were in the early days of the Internet and that soon enough we'd have some better Internet-searching technology.

Well, six years later I'm still waiting for that efficient search engine and singing U2's "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" while I wade through long lists of query results that don't quite have the information I want.

Plenty of other technology areas have improved for U.S. Internet users since 1995. Internet connections are faster. The amount and quality of multimedia content has increased. Web site design has evolved significantly. Finally, the types of useful Web services offered online, such as online banking, online bill payment, online shopping, driver's license renewal, and so on, continues to rise.

While those areas are by no means perfect and will continue to be enhanced, U.S. Internet users can look back six years and notice marked improvement. Not so with search technology.

Advances in Internet searching have been slower in coming. Sure, queries can be made more specific, and results can be filtered in more ways, but as it was in 1995, it is still very unlikely you will find quickly the information you are looking for using a search engine.

Search engines still return way too many results for the average query, forcing users to comb through sites that are either marginally related to the topic or, if related to the topic, most likely to feature low-quality, useless content. In short, search engines are still not good enough at finding information, which is a big problem, because that's their reason for being.

That has been my experience using search engines that find mostly English-language Web sites, as well as when I use search engines tailored for Spanish-language content. Maybe there are other search engines that focus on other languages and that work better. If there are, I envy the speakers of those languages. But I seriously doubt there are any search engines that deliver an acceptable level of service to users anywhere.

Even more disheartening is that the topic of Internet-searching technology, once a hot issue in the U.S., seems to have lost some of its importance. Could it be that we here in the U.S. are becoming resigned to the fact that we'll never get that search engine we've been waiting for? Are U.S. users and search-engine companies throwing in the towel and acknowledging that the Web is wild and impossible to search and index in any useful manner?

I hope not. There will certainly be large profits to be had by the company that brings to the market a search engine that acts like a true research assistant, instead of as a keyword identifier that returns a list of 15,000 Web sites after a query. For users, there will finally be a real tool to take advantage of all the useful - but often hard to find - information contained in the Internet.

And maybe then U2's Bono will finally find whatever it is he's been looking for. The group recorded the aforementioned song about 14 years ago -- that's a long wait, and I doubt that search engines have given him much help.

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