On its surface, the Binoculars feature in search results at Ask.com seems to only provide a preview of a page that you can visit. But, there may be more going on beneath the surface than a simple preview. There are attributes of this preview that may not have been rolled out yet, and the way that people interact with Binoculars might help the search engine improve their search results. A patent granted today for Ask.com has more details.
The Ask.com patent, Methods and apparatus for mouse-over preview of contextually relevant information (US Patent 7,047,502), appears to describe their Binoculars feature, and some interesting alternatives that it could display in addition to a preview of a page.
Information that could be displayed in a preview window
On search results pages at Ask.com, the Binoculars let searchers sneak a look at a screenshot of a page they could visit, when they mouse over a preview icon. The patent document spells out some other options. These alternatives might be shown in a single window, or even in cascading or adjacent windows.
- Other web pages that have relevant and similar content,
- A list of URLs representing all or some of the links contained or identified in the page,
- A view of the home page associated with the web page returned, or other pages within the same domain,
- A view of the page on the domain with the most click throughs to it,
- The creation date of a web page,
- The last refresh date of a web page,
- The file size of a web page,
- The number of links-in on a web page,
- The number of links-out on a web page,
- Registration information associated with the domain,
- Geographic information relevant to the site,
- A directory structure of deeper pages leading from the page returned,
- Query refinement suggestions, such as alternative search terms with a list of sites received in response to that query,
- A language translation of a page,
- A definition, or a list of synonyms or antonyms, and;
- Part of the page where the queried terms are located.
The patent document also discusses how the preview window might be configured; what preview icons might look like; and how previews might be displayed, including inline windows, floating windows, and multiple windows per result.
User Behavior and Binoculars
We know that Ask.com is no stranger to the click through methods that were used by Direct Hit in an attempt to improve query results. Can the use of previews also allow them to glean information about how users respond to the pages that are returned in a query?
The preview information is intended to provide users with a way to effectively gauge search results before they click through to a page. Tracking how people use those features might help the search engine. It's noted that this could be done by monitoring keystrokes, mousing, and related timing for a user reviewing a search results page. This information might be collected in query logs or host log files of the search engine. This is the kind of information that might be measured:
- Which result is being previewed by order or rank,
- The length of each preview,
- The order of previewing,
- The number of results previewed per page, and;
- Whether there is a click-through.
What conclusions might be drawn from this collected information?
A long preview time might indicate that a result is fairly relevant to a query and may increase the relevance ranking for a page in relation to that query. A very short preview may indicate the opposite.
The number or percentage of previews for each results page could tell the search engine how easy it was for the user to find an acceptable document. So a small number of previews before a click through might indicate that it was easy to find an acceptable result. If the searcher looked at all of the previews on a page, but didn't visit any of them until looking at most or all of the results, then an assumption might be made that he or she "settled after looking for a while."
The rank of a previewed site may be relevant in that a preview indicates user interest. Therefore, if the original rank was low, but a site receives a good percentage of previews and click throughs, there may be cause for improving its ranking.
The order of previews may also provide a clue as to which results were relevant to a particular query.
It's also noted in the patent that the methods described here to improve query results might also be used in conjunction with some of the processes described in Ask.com's patent on Personalized search methods (U.S. Pat. No. 6,182,068)
I'll be looking at those Binoculars a little differently now that I've read this patent.
My usual reminder about patents: Some of the processes and technology described in patents are created in house, and some are developed with the assistance of contractors and partners. A percentage are never developed in a tangible manner, but may serve as a way to attempt to exclude others from using the technology, or even to possibly mislead competitors into exploring an area that they might not have an interest in (sometimes skepticism is good.)
There are times when a Google or Yahoo acquires a company to gain access to the intellectual property of that company, or the intellectual prowess and expertise of that company's employees. And sometimes patents are just purchased.
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