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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Yahoo! Shortcuts, Instant Search, and Natural Language Search

Yahoo! Shortcuts are a very useful way to quickly find the answers you're looking for. This page has a lot of examples of the sort of information that you can find, including flight schedules, gas prices in your area, and even a book price finder that finds the lowest price. The syntax is easy to remember, and you can always bookmark the page to refer back to if you need to refresh your memory. This is, of course, very unnatural language search, requiring the human to adjust to the machine's needs.

Another related Yahoo Inc. service called Instant Search is sort of a clone of Google's I'm Feeling Lucky button and is a closer approximation to natural language search. You type in your search terms and a single search result is displayed automatically. You can hit Ctrl+Enter to jump to the site that gets shown. It's part of a move toward natural language processing by search engines that has been in the news recently with the yet-to-be-launched Powerset and a little further back with Ask.com. Instant Search tries to find the most relevant result for what you're looking for whether it's "new york pizza" or "dna". It's useful because it takes the usual search space that you get when you type in a query and reduces it to one manageable answer that you either accept or don't. However, not all queries get you a result so Instant Search is only useful for certain types of searches.

The problem with natural language search (mentioned here as well) is that it paradoxically makes it more difficult for the user to find what they're looking for. Since the search engine's algorithm is tuned to differentiate between subtly different syntax and diction, you have to be extra careful in framing your search query. It just takes longer for you to think about phrasing a query as a question than to enter keywords. Of course, if you could just check a box saying you want to use a "dumb" search algorithm like today's that doesn't account for that extra level of complexity, that would remove the problem for a lot of users.


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