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June 30, 2007

Novice vs. Expert Google Users

Dare Obasanjo was at Google Scalability Conference in Seattle last week and took some notes from Marissa Mayer's keynote "Scaling Google for Every User".

The first part of the talk addressed the issue of users that don't know how to optimize their queries for Google.
One thing that does distinguish users is the difference between a novice search user and an expert user of search. Novice users typically type queries in natural language while expert users use keyword searches.

Example Novice and Expert Search User Queries

NOVICE QUERY: Why doesn't anyone carry an umbrella in Seattle?
EXPERT QUERY: weather seattle washington

NOVICE QUERY: Can I hike in the Seattle area?
EXPERT QUERY: hike seattle area

On average, it takes a new Google user 1 month to go from typing novice queries to being a search expert. This means that there is little payoff in optimizing the site to help novices since they become search experts in such a short time frame.

Google actually ignores or pays little attention to prepositions, conjunctions, articles, so people realize that it's faster and more efficient to only list the keywords. But there are already search engines like hakia that want you to use full sentences to take advantage of the relationships between words. Maybe users shouldn't adapt to search engines' limitations, but search engines should become smart enough to understand our requests.

Update: The video of Marissa Mayer's keynote:


  1. I agree completely with this. The future of search is a search engine that understands sentence structure and paragraph context and perhaps document theme.


  2. I do agree with all of this.

    But id like to bring up the one month from novice to expert?! I dont know about you but thats a whole bunch of bull.

    and the:
    NOVICE QUERY: Why doesn't anyone carry an umbrella in Seattle?
    EXPERT QUERY: weather seattle washington

    why wouldnt the expert use the word umbrella? Whom ever wrote this is still on the novice side lol, noob lol.

  3. I agree about the umbrella post. One more thing, if you want to search for a specific sentence or search for the key phrase in Google, use parentheses.

    EX: "carry an umbrella" Seattle

  4. I think these () are parentheses. And you should use quotes ("") instead.


  5. I do agree though that the user should not have to adjust to the search engine, but rather the opposite. The search engine should (at least try to) be smart enough to understand what the user means. Of course I know this is a very hard area of computing, but I'm sure whoever cracks this problem will have a very good shot of taking on Google.

    I've been sort of following Powerset, the one company that seems to have the answer for this type of "novice" queries, and if Powerset delivers its promise of providing a good search engine that understands natural language query, then Google might be in for a good "fight".

  6. I don't want to type a whole sentence into Google. The fewer words that get what I want, the better.

  7. Novice: Information on Lincoln
    Expert: information Lincoln -Abraham

  8. But what about when you can't formulate your query as a question? And I agree that it's a lot shorter to type "lemma" or "define:lemma" than "What the heck is a lemma?" or even "What does lemma mean?"

    I would say that an expert user is one who knows how to use advanced feature like minus, quotes, the define: operator, etc. whereas a novice just types a few words that they think might be related to what they're looking for.

  9. I think it's a lot more complex than just categorizing users as novice or expert. There is such a wide array of levels (and human bizarreness / unpredictability) within even those two supposed camps that any effort put forth to predict user behavior by creating arbitrary labels as simple as novice and expert will certainly be fruitless.

    One month "novice" to "expert"? Yeah right. I'd love to see how my parents formulate their search queries, or maybe even my 20 year old sister. They have all been using search engines for years now, and I can assure you that they would all prove Marissa Mayer wrong.

    That said, the more users know, the better. And why should "expert" users have to pay for the "novice" users' collective ignorance, albeit in the form of a simplified and clunkier search experience? Since when should we cater to stubborn laypersons? Plus, I like being able to retrieve relevant information faster than a large portion of society.

    We also cannot lose sight of the fact that even these supposed novice users usually receive excellent search results back from Google.

    Finally, I do agree with the notion of a search engine being able to understand the relationships between words, phrases, and sentences if the end goal is improve the search results and is designed only with the so-called expert users in mind.

  10. I agree with mac, my dissertation was based upon formulating search strings and they do differ from one another. its like talking to a computer, you dont necessarily need to use the "stop words". these include the use of "and" "or" , etc. however if your searching to answer a question you may need the "what" or "why"

  11. Yes. Powerset, the natural language search engine that will launch a beta version in September, shows some examples of queries in its blog. Unfortunately, the results are restricted to Wikipedia pages.

    Powerset says it understands the relation between words, so if you search for [what did steve jobs say about the iPod?], Powerset "matches the structure and meaning of your query with the structure and meaning of every sentence and document in the index, and then returns those passages that truly match your intent". Powerset finds the pages "where Steve Jobs is saying, stating, telling, mentioning, claiming, announcing, etc. something about the iPod. The trick isn’t just knowing that mentioning and saying can mean the same thing, it's also knowing that in given sentence, Steve Jobs is doing the saying, and the thing he's saying something about is the iPod."

  12. Mac is right but I would expand his comments by adding that a novice and an expert searcher can continue to improve their search skills by learning to search fields like the title field (intitle:) of the url field (inurl:) and limiting to a top level domain (site:gov, site:edu, etc.)

  13. OK, umbrella protects you from something, so don't go where you need to have protection. Unless your of Itallian decent - protection automatic. So conclusion - "No Protection required in Seattle." So visit it, and then figure out your premise was wrong.

    NOVICE QUERY: Why Seattle
    EXPERT QUERY: Seahawks

    Probably the same results!

  14. Intéressant tout ça, mais Quid de CUIL ?

  15. A novice and an expert searcher can continue to improve their search skills by learning to search fields like the title field (intitle:) of the url field (inurl:) and limiting to a top level domain (site:gov, site:edu, etc.)? Guys don't presume too much on newbies. They want to learn. All of started that way.


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