Symbolic Failure


Remember when the musician Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol back in 1993? Such a move could have put the artist out of business. After all, how do you sell music when nobody can look you up by name? But because Prince was the first to try this, a potential business disaster became a public relations bonanza. It also didn't hurt that the alternate appellation, "the artist formerly known as Prince" stuck with him, making it possible to still search on "Prince" and get to his music in most cases.

Intriguingly, things haven't progressed much on this front since 1993. Just last week, it was reported that a new CBS television series, '$#*! My Dad Says,' was paying an unexpected penalty for its choice of title: the show couldn't be found by the search software in most digital video recorders because of its use of symbols. With some 38% of U.S. households now owning a digital video recorder, this is no small issue. 

Symbols in a name may sound like an obscure issue, and to a great extent, it is. But it speaks to a larger issue: in today's digital world, you are your index. How you permit your content to be accessed is as important as the content itself.

Here's another example: I subscribe to a music service called Rhapsody. It allows me to access and stream millions of songs on demand. You can search Rhapsody by artist name, album name or track name. So far so good. But in its apparent rush to provide access to millions of songs, Rhapsody made an incredibly basic error: every album, track or musical group that starts with the article "The" is listed under "T." Many, many thousands of them. Happy scrolling!
 

And while search technology seems to get more powerful every day, site searching, including database searches, remains a real backwater. "Better searching" is always on the short list of user requests when we survey users of both free and paid data products. Users expect, for example, to see search results that include both "&" and "and" regardless of which one is entered. Users want search software that can handle common misspellings. Data publishers can add a lot of value by normalizing their data to minimize some of these issues. But ultimately, users want search software that can do a lot of the thinking for them and that frees them from having to become conversant with your editorial style rules in order to get optimal search results.

 

Great, valuable data is only great and valuable if users can easily access it. Too many data publishers focus obsessively on creating great data, while settling for off-the-shelf search technology that doesn't do justice to their content. It's important to invest resources in both areas. 

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