Search Engine Relevancy. Part 1: Defining Relevancy


[Part 1 in a series of postings about relevancy.]

Relevancy is subjective. Each searcher will have a different evaluation of a search tool’s relevancy, and not only that, but each searcher will change that opinion based on the specific search being done. Search relevancy is a moving target that will never be agreed upon. Novice searchers should look to experts for advice, but in the end must reach their own conclusions about relevancy. Those conclusions must be based on using a few search engines, because relevancy is contextual and can only be understood as a comparison.

This is a concept that has been discussed by countless other information professionals, many of whom will say that defining relevancy is not constructive because of its subjectivity. I disagree. I think all serious searchers need to have their own definition of relevancy in order to make judgments about search results. After all, why do we use search engines? We use them to find information. We don’t use them to be impressed by clever features, a large index, or an intriguing name. We use them to find what we are looking for, and we can only find information if the results we get for our searches are relevant. And we can only decide if results are relevant if we have a simple framework for making that decision. Relevancy is the key and the foundation for search. Without relevancy, the rest is fluff. On an engine that has good relevancy, the features that are built around it become especially valuable. On an engine that has poor relevancy, the features are useless.

There are a slew of companies offering various takes on searching electronic sources. Some companies are searching sources such as databases, archives, and home computers, while on the Web there are general search engines, visual engines, clustering engines, natural language engines, and so forth. There are also specialty search tools – tabs or advanced search on general search engines – that focus on news, blogs, images, and so forth. It is great to have these tools, but none of the bells and whistles mean a thing if the results are not relevant. Without relevancy, users will not come back no matter how many special features are available. How often will I visit a restaurant with great atmosphere, but bad food? Not often.

Definitions of Search Engine Relevancy
With relevancy being such an important part of search, how is this elusive term defined when it comes to search engines? Here are my definitions. I am sure your definition will be different. Even if your definition is similar, when it comes to actually evaluating search results people will not always agree. Even if someone agrees with everything I say, we will still often disagree in our evaluation. I may think a result is relevant, when someone else thinks it is not relevant, and because of the subjective nature of relevancy evaluation we can both be right. So, with all those caveats let me present my definitions.

Relevancy: A measure of how well a search tool finds the information being sought.
[Sound too simple? Please, I welcome any other definitions because the more complicated I tried to make my definition, the more I just kept coming back to this simple sentence.]

To break it down further, I think of relevancy in terms of three levels or grades:

Relevant: the search result provides the information I am looking for. It is that simple.

Somewhat relevant: the result is close, and may even propel me along a path that leads to the information I am looking for, but it does not exactly have what I want. A somewhat relevant result is sometimes valuable because it suggests a different way and different terms for a search.

Not relevant: the site provides no help to me. It may contain the terms I searched for, but the context is wrong. It is that simple.

Next Installment – Part 2: The Jaded Surfer

About Chris

I'm Chris and I've worked in the search engine industry since the late '90s.

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