Suffering from Search Fatigue?

Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Land recently highlighted a recent report issued by Autobytel that measured 1,001 U.S. adults and their interactions with search engines when searching for, specifically, automobiles.

I’ll spare you the details (but do read the article and report), but the results show that “72.3 percent of Americans” experience “search engine fatigue” when researching online, and more than three quarters of those folks “always, usually, or sometimes” get up and leave without ever finding the object of their search.

While that’s a somewhat alarming statistic, the more shocking discovery was that a significant group of these people expressed a desire that search engines be able to “read their minds.”

Erm, gulp.

Number one, trust me on this, you wouldn’t like it. Were I a billionaire the first thing I’d do is conduct a social experiment in which I cold call random people to offer them free money. I bet 72.3 percent of them would tell me to jam the phone someplace both uncomfortable and anatomically improbable.

But aren’t I reading their minds? Who doesn’t want free money? If someone called me right now and said “would you like some free money?” I’d probably, after telling him or her to shove the phone somewhere, be like “hey, are you reading my mind?”

All we need is to have Google develop Google Brain and fill our skulls full of paid eBay ads (“Looking for free money? You can find it and more on eBay!”). Do you even want the word “Yahoo!” in your head at all? Please, fellow citizens, let’s watch what we wish for.

But that’s beside my point. One of the commenters on Search Engine Land mentioned Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, which is certainly applicable here (Cliff’s Notes: the more choices you’re given, the harder it is to choose; repeat until subject is rendered cataleptic). Another, however, astutely mentioned that much of this confusion regarding how to search could be resolved if the search engines told you how to search.

Toward that end, I’d like to start things off with a few simple “How-Tos.”

  1. When searching, you’re not talking to a person. Indeed, you’re not talking at all. Although it has been tried there is not a search engine yet that can accurately answer the question “how do I change the freaking oil filter on this freaking car without freaking covering myself in freaking goop, for freak’s sake?”*Even though that sort of search is kind of cute, in a “the computer is my friend” kind of way, pretend instead that you’re speaking to Tarzan, or that you’re Tarzan speaking to someone else. Bark orders. Take command. “Change oil filter” works pretty much across the board.
  2. That said, don’t go too far down that road: “change filter” doesn’t help you out much, and “filter” on its own isn’t of any use at all.
  3. Don’t think there’s anything better after, say, the first three pages. There might be, but chances are you’re going to find more of the same, become more and more frustrated, and 3/4 of you will probably get up and walk away.
  4. If you’re one of the remaining 1/4, you’re venturing Lewis and Clark-like into the morass of the fourth page and beyond, and you’ve been pursuing the object of your search for two hours or more, you’re either severely stricken with OCD or are convinced that you’ll find the mythical diamond in the dirt. You won’t. Why? Because companies that are serious about doing business online have taken steps to make themselves visible, and if they’re not serious about doing business online, why are you trying to do business with them, online?

There, that’s a start. I hope I’ve helped you, compatriots. Practice at home: write down a bunch of things you want to search for, cross out articles, prepositions, and conjunctions (the, a, for, of, and, but, etc.), pour yourself a refreshing beverage, take a deep breath, and thank whoever you worship that your greatest risk is search fatigue, and that you don’t have some damn car salesman biting at your heels.**

*(FYI — for this search, Google comes up with a bunch of blogs, none of which has anything to do with changing oil filters, many of which seemed kinda adult; Yahoo! couldn’t find anything (“Yahoo!”); Live, who took second place, returned a few paid search ads that were pretty dang well on-topic; and Ask, surprisingly true to its moniker, not only brought back paid search ads but organic results that were remarkably close. Huh…)

**To help you completely get into the spirit of this endeavor, I’ve used LyricsFly.com (the song lyric search engine) and have come up with some music selections for your search-training mix tape: artists from Pennywise to Frank Sinatra to Mary J. Blige have all recorded songs called “Searching”, and 22-Pistepirkko has a song called “Searching & Looking”; beware, however, of the Kinks (“Still Searching”), Alas (“Endlessly Searching”), and, above all, the Bad Cash Quartet (“Searching is Killing Me”).