|What is Music?||Solving a Scientific Mystery|
No matter what your area of interest, the Internet is a great resource for answering questions. And the single most used type of resource on the Internet for finding information is the search engine. The most popular search engine is Google, but people also use Yahoo, MSN and other search engines.
So you would think that search engines would do something useful if you typed a question into the search field. The sad truth is that no, they don't, and the response of all search engines that I tried was one of two things:
Most of the search engines that I tried fell in to the first category. The most well-known example of the second category is Ask Jeeves
As you may suspect, my interest in the search engines and searches on questions comes from the fact that my own book has a title which is a question. Very naively, I hoped that if my book had a question in the title, and people searched for that same question, the book's website would appear somewhere in the search results. This hasn't yet eventuated, for various reasons (including the Google Sandbox), and one of those reasons is that search engines don't actually help you to search for a question.
If we proceed on the assumption that the best way to find the answer to a question on the web is to search for a website that contains the text of the question, then what we really want a search engine to do with a question is find sites that contain the verbatim text for that question. Now if a question is sufficiently long, then the odds are that the exact text simply won't exist anywhere, but for many questions there will be some results, and it would be nice if the search engines could actually return them to us.
So let us try search for the answer to the questions "What is Music?" on Google. For example, click on this link. You will see a lot of different stuff on the results page, but the most critical is the following sentence:
The following words are very common and were not included in your search: what is
In other words, Google didn't search for "what is music?", it actually just searched for "music". No "what is", and no question mark either. Following the warning that Google deleted some of your words, there is a "details" link. This leads to a page that explains that if you want common words to be included, you should either put a "+" before them, or perhaps you should do a whole phrase search.
Unfortunately, Google does not given you an easy link to either of these alternative searches. It's still up to you to type in the relevant extra characters. You don't get one of those "Did you mean:" questions with a link to the search that it thinks you may have intended.
Anyway, we can easily enough place quotes at the start and end of our search to do a whole phrase search.
This time there is no message about words not being included. But, actually, Google still left something out. This time they didn't even tell you. But Google left out the question mark. It actually searched for "what is music", not "what is music?". One way you can tell is that there is no difference in the results if you leave the question mark out yourself, and another way you can tell is that you get results for web pages with titles and phrases like "What is Music Therapy?", "What is music cognition?" and "What is music psychology?". For lack of a question mark, you get shown links to web pages that actually answer different questions. You could also read the Interpreting Your Query help page, which tells you that Google ignores various characters including "?", because "punctuation is typically not as important as the text around it".
Dear Google, if someone is searching for the answers to questions, question marks can be important. Maybe you could recognise question marks at the end of a query, and at least give the user a direct link to a search for that question as a verbatim phrase including the question mark.
I know that the search database probably deletes the component of the data ignored by the searches (i.e. case differences and punctuation, including question marks), but perhaps you could do some sort of post-search filtering, to eliminate (or at least re-rank) those results which are not an exact verbatim match.
Yours truly, etc.
If you search for "what is music?", Yahoo doesn't ignore the "what" and the "is". And it doesn't ignore the "?". The question mark changes the results, but it actually seems to make them worse, as if it was identifying your search as a question and trying to be clever about answering it for you. So the best advice for Yahoo is that you don't have to use quotes, but make sure to leave out the question mark, or perhaps try the same query both with and without a question mark.
If you search for what is music?, MSN ignores the question mark, and it mostly ignores the "what" and the "is", just like Google does. The one exception is that if you include "what" and "is" it puts an attempted answer to your question in the little section after the sponsored links but before the proper search results.
If you search for "what is music?", with the quotes, and with or without the question mark, then you get a search for the question phrase. MSN actually ranks my site 3rd for this search (as of 9 March 2005), so "Yay MSN!". (Update, 4 June 2005, this website ranks 1st on MSN, now if only people actually used MSN to do web searches ...)
Teoma's responses are very similar to Google's: ignore "what" and "is" if the search phrase is not quoted, and ignore "?" no matter what.
|Copyright © 2005 Philip Dorrell||Page last updated 4 June 2005|