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Visual search the next big thing?

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 17 Nov 06, 08:16 PM

I stumbled over a new search engine called Quintura, currently in beta testing. This search engine has gained some publicity for becoming the first Russian company to receive funding from Western venture capitalists.

What sets it apart from many other search engines is that it works with concepts. One of the problems with getting the right results to a user is dealing with ambiguity.

So, for example, if I wanted to find something about web accessibility and only typed "accessibility" in, I might expect to see results relating to buildings and employment, as well as websites. Quintura presents you with options to refine your search and by clicking the right concept at the top of the page, you get the most relevant results at the bottom.

The most relevant words are displayed in what they call a 'cloud' in a larger and bolder font and closer to the original keyword. So, at a glance, you should be able to find what you're looking for more quickly and easily thanks to the visual design.

Research undertaken by Foolproof, a user experience company, in January 2006 into how users find financial information on the web showed that they used on average 7 unique searches to find the information they were looking for. It will be interesting to see if Quintura can provide any stats showing that users find what they are looking for more quickly.

Ironically, in attempting to make searching easier for sighted users, Quintura have introduced problems for other user groups. There are practical problems to contend with. Re-sorting keywords and results is done using Ajax, which means that the page is not refreshed, and screen reader users might not be aware that the page has changed. Those using screen magnifiers will have similar problems as the results will be refreshed below the roll of the page and out of sight.

A bigger challenge though than the practical side of things may be in representing the strength of associations between keywords in a non-visual way. As someone with no sight problems, I can immediately see that “web” has a stronger connection to “accessibility” than, say “west” because the website displays 'web' as bigger and bolder. How do you do this in a non-visual way?

If visually ordered interfaces prove to make searching more efficient, then Quintura may be the template for what search engines look like in the future. That’s fine – I’m not a Luddite proselytising against change just for the hell of it – but this functionality needs to be provided in a way that is accessible to everyone.

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