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Search Experts Hunt For Answers

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- "Glacier Bay" sounds like a scenic national park. In fact, it is, but that doesn't mean that's what most people are looking for when they type the words into a search engine.

That's why you have to look at the clickstream.

"You learn from what people are looking for and we are often corrected by users," said Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, during a panel session at the AlwaysOn conference here.

Search types

At one time, Norvig said the majority of searches on the term were actually looking for the Glacier Bay Faucet company, which came in No. 4 in a search on the term today.

"When you look at the clickstream you find out what people want, not what you think they want," he said.

Yahoo's Usama Fayyad said his all-time favorite odd search query is: "How can I tell if I'm pregnant?"

"It's always in the top 20," said Fayyad, senior vice president of research at Yahoo. "I thought we solved that one."

One late night, Google's Norvig said he was looking at search queries and decided to see if any series of searches were being made in the pattern of a haiku. There were many, but his favorite was:

"Java ECC"

"Java elliptical curves"

"Playboy FAQ"

"That was a real story of search and frustration," Norvig said, laughing along with the audience.

Michael Yavonditte, CEO of Internet marketing company Quigo, said the funniest keyword he's come across was "fuzzy dice."

"It was the best keyword for selling used cars on eBay Motors," said Yavonditte.

Advertisers and search

But there was more serious discussion and debate at the panel about the relevancy of results and what it means to advertisers.

Yahoo's Fayyad said Yahoo Mail keeps growing with thousands if not millions of new users, but the challenge has been to have them continue to come back.

"It turns out, adding a news preview box in the log-in page works really well. I wouldn't have guessed that, but the data shows people look at a lot of news."

Fayyad also pointed to Yahoo's main portal page and the growth of other services like Flickr and Yahoo Answers to assert that there is a lot more going on in its battle with search leader Google than simple search.

"It's not about passively searching the Web anymore," said Fayyad.

Norvig said Google was looking to improve results by working with speech technologies and other improvements to the interface. He said the average query is only two or three words, but it's not a question of having users enter more data.

"The way to go is a better communication chain," said Norvig. He gave some insight into Google's thinking by comparing the process of finding information at a library.

"You had this person called a librarian and explained what you were looking for. There was a dialogue and you came to an agreement."

Yavonditte said video, as exemplified by the runaway growth of sites such as YouTube, is a clear trend on the Internet waiting to be exploited by advertisers.

"YouTube has a ton of data and demographic information from their registrations. I think you'll see them leverage that going forward.

"One of the things that makes these sites explode is the visualization of the Internet. Bandwidth costs have gone down and now you can even buy a disposable video camera."

But Yavonditte was less optimistic about the prospects for vertically focused search sites.

"There are hundreds of business plans going around Silicon Valley, but I don't think it's going to take off. General search is good enough."