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Natural language search

© May 2019 Anthony Lawrence

At The Alta Vista Search Engine Days we learn that Alta Vista thought that people would type in long phrases to describe what they were searching for. Consequently, Alta Vista devoted a lot of effort to trying to glean meaning from long phrases, only to learn that most searchers bang in exactly one word and hit Enter.

The reason is simple enough: those of us with at least a vague glimmer of intelligence quickly observed that long phrases either gave us too much or too little, while the right lone word or two would kick back better results. Part of that is limitations of natural language processing, which isn't all that good today (just use a translator to convert any phrase to another language and back again) and certainly was even worse when Alta Vista was still popular. But there are deeper reasons: when we want another human being to understand us quickly and definitively, do we prattle on or are we succinct and direct? Does a police officer say "Stop!" or "Desist your motion" ?

About the only search engine left even pretending to do natural language is Ask Jeeves, which is the least important engine of the four majors, probably because those of us who already know that less is more won't use it, and those who don't know get lousy results from it. But Ask Jeeves doesn't require natural language; even their search box now says "Search with Keywords or Questions".

There are exceptions. If you are searching for information about a specific error message, sometimes the precise message ("local security policy won't permit interactive logon") will nail just what you want. But if it doesn't, go back to less (like "security policy" in that case).

If you are one who doesn't understand this, and regularly types whole sentences into search engines, you need to refine your behavior. If one word doesn't work, yes, try two and more if that still doesn't work. But always try less before more.

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Inexpensive and informative Apple related e-books:

Take Control of the Mac Command Line with Terminal, Second Edition

Take Control of Automating Your Mac

Take Control of Preview

Take Control of Numbers

Take Control of iCloud

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