Mahalo is the world’s first human-powered search engine, or so their website goes. Basically, it uses users to create the search results for a given search term. An interesting, and yet unproven, concept. However, I have a degree of sympathy with the approach. For a given search term you have ten (possibly up to thirty) key documents to deliver. Can an algorithm really figure out which are the ten best. This problem is compounded by users frequently using unsophisticated search terms that return lots of results. Take TRIP, our popular search terms are things such as asthma, hypertension etc.

The introduction of the specialist searches on TRIP has given us some additional information. For instance if a user goes to the cardiology site and searches for the term ‘asthma’ we know that this is likely to be related to cardiology.

However, 95% of our users search TRIP via the main search. So we can assume very little about their intentions when they search. True, if they search for ‘prostate cancer screening’ that’s a specific search and there are not masses of results. But what about the search terms ‘asthma’ or ‘hypertension’? One obvious option is to produce search hints, to allow users to easily select search modifiers. For instance the search term asthma might produce search modifiers such as ‘children’, ‘steroids’, ‘allergy’, ‘education’ etc. A simple click on one of the suggested terms produces a more focused search. This is fairly easy to do and I hope to introduce something sometime this year.

However, I’m particularly interested in the habits of previous searches of a particular term. Can we aggregate these habits to produce a user list of results based on click-through? So, instead of using the algorithm (or as an alternative) why not say – the most popular documents viewed by previous users for the term asthma are… and then list the top ten. I have serious doubts, for instance I know the results will be skewed to the top ten search results. Also, clicking on a paper doesn’t demonstrate that it’s useful – just that the title makes the document sound useful.

I think I need to get the designers in to see if we can re-jig the results page. In that way we might be able to squeeze in a relatively small box that highlights the most popular 5-10 results for a given search. Certainly one to ponder.

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