How It Should Work: In-World Search Part 2

In Part 1 (How It Should Work: In-World Search) I went through a rather extensive justification for why In-World Search is a Tool to be used by Merchants and Sellers in Second Life. If you haven’t taken the time to read that yet, please do so now. I know it’s a long read, but it will help you understand the basis for a lot of what I discuss in this post.

Now that you’re up to speed with the introduction stuff, let’s begin from this basic observation: The tools and methods for advertising your products in Second Life are paltry at best and non-existent at worst. In an environment that derives a large amount of its livelihood (and income) from a commerce driven system, that’s an omission that is unforgivable. So let’s tackle ways in which Linden Lab can remedy that problem as they relate to In-World Search.

Step 1 – Stabilize In-World Search

This is an issue that has been mentioned (and bemoaned) by Merchants many times. I think my favorite quote about it is something along the lines of “Trying to run a business in Second Life is like trying to build a house of cards in an Earthquake.” Over the past 14 months or so, there have been so many changes in the basic mechanism of In-World Search that trying to get a handle on it has been impossibly frustrating. As an SEO Consultant, I do little more than study In-World Search … and there’s times when I’m just positively befuddled as to what is going on. If it’s got me baffled, imagine the frustration of those actually trying to use it. GACK!

I believe a lot of the reason Linden Lab is constantly changing up In-World Search and its ranking methods is because of the rampant perception (correct or not) that Search is nothing but a Spammer’s Heaven. With their ears pinned back by all the howls of righteous indignation from those Merchants not “properly represented” in Search, the Dev Team once again takes up the task of jiggering things around to try and unseat the “evil spammers” that are destroying Search. But here’s where we need to make a major change in our thinking about In-World Search and how it should be used.

Step 2 – Rethink In-World Search

Martial Arts teaches a basic concept about combat that has application in many other realms. It goes something like this:

It is not necessary to block your opponent, only to deflect them.

I mention this because to date the Search Dev Team has been doing their level best to block, totally and relentlessly stop cold in their tracks the efforts of Merchants to improve their ranking in Search. But as has been seen, this is a fruitless and useless waste of energy because Search itself is a valuable tool to Merchants. Trying to take it away from them only causes them to redouble their efforts to get it back and use it to its fullest advantage. This philosophy has not only cost many innocent Merchants a tremendous amount of potential income and business, but has resulted in a level of enmity between the combatants (the Merchants and the Search Dev Team) that has poisoned the whole service itself. This has to stop. But how?

Thinking through the process, what you realize is that those Merchants that have taken the time and invested the money to improve their rank in In-World Search are investing in what they consider to be good advertising. Most Merchants will also tell you that when they have been in Search for a period of time and then lose that spot, they see an immediate downturn in traffic and sales. (Yes, there are many that think Search is useless and don’t spend any time investing in it, but those are also usually the Merchants that have never seen the benefits of appearing high in Search Results either.)

So the rethink here is a paradigm shift in what In-World Search is and what it must do … and that leads us directly to the conclusion that In-World Search is an Advertising Tool and thus must have the same capabilities and services as any decent and beneficial advertising medium. In short, what we’re going to do is stop thinking of people as Spammers and start thinking of them as Customers of Search. Instead of crabbing about them spending money and doing heaven knows what to advance their rank in Search Results, we are going to give them legitimate avenues to gain that exposure, but assign realistic and reasonable costs for that exposure as well. We’re going to turn that negative into a positive AND make money from it as well.

Step 3 – Redesign Classifieds

Splattered down the right-hand side of Search Results is a thin column of (what purports to be) Classified Advertisements. Not too long ago, Linden Lab slashed the amount of text that can be included in a Classified Ad. The reasons behind this change are somewhat murky, (I’ve heard reasons from “the big ads didn’t fit in V2” to “they were running out of storage space”) but the truth behind this change is … that’s the wrong freakin’ direction!

Another of the major faults with the Classifieds is that their presentation order is based purely on pricing. The more you pay for the classified ad, the higher your ad will appear when deemed “Relevant”. (And we’ll tackle the whole relevancy issue in short order .. hang tight.) This has led to most people paying the absolute minimum for their advertisement because there is just no way in the world they can compete with the Fat Cats that spend astronomical sums to appear first every time. The resulting stratification has rendered them useless and, as I’m sure Linden Lab can attest, a poor source of income. (Thus why they had no real problem with slashing their size. Classifieds aren’t making them any real money so .. no big loss, right?)

When you place a Classified Advertisement, you can enter a whole slew of “Keywords” that should be used to trigger the display of your ad copy. When anyone searches for one or more of the keywords you enter, your ad will get tossed in with all the other ads that have the same keyword and then ranked according to how much you paid to post your ad. The more keywords you stuff in, the more “views” you get. But this mechanism results in keywords that are basically free. Worse, if you’re going to pay a ton of L$ to post your ad, you’re going to splatter it across every keyword you can find too. Even if you don’t sell shoes, horses, dresses, hair and animations … you’ll still toss in those keywords because adding them costs you no more and might just get some benefit. Except it doesn’t.

What it DOES do is cause people to ignore the Classified Ads altogether. If a customer is searching for hair and they keep seeing ads for sex beds, pretty quick like they realize that the ads are just bogus and thus tune them out. So it’s rather obvious the pricing and placement mechanism behind Classified Ads is broken. What is needed is a mechanism that places a price range on keywords. The more often someone searches for a specific keyword, the higher the range. Those that want to have their ad appear when that keyword appears can select an amount they are willing to pay within that range. The more they pay, the more often their ad will appear.

Now, anyone that has spent any amount of time studying Search Engines will immediately recognize this mechanism. It comes from a wee little upstart named Google. (It’s been copied by most other Search Engines too, but Google’s Ad Words was one of the forerunners with this method.) The only way this can work though is for Linden Lab to do something they have not ever done before … open the doors and share some information as to which are the most popular keywords and which are not that popular. And that leads us to …

Step 4 – Publish Search Analytics

This is one of those things that, to me at least, is a total DUH concept. Of course, when you consider that the paradigm Linden Lab has been using until now has been the “we must stop the spammers” approach, it’s no surprise they have kept these details top secret too. But that has to change. You see, advertising works when those using it and paying for it are also able to see how it is working for them. That kind of feedback about performance is something the Lab has kept totally under wraps. But asking people to pay for something without being able to see it or tell what it is or how it’s working is worse than trying to get them to take the unknown surprise behind Door #3. (At least with Door #3 you get a chance to be on TV.)

So the first thing they need to start publishing are statistics on what keywords people are actually typing into Search. This means not only single word search queries, but multi-word queries too. These need to be presented in a format that anyone can use and understand. The Lab also needs to publish (in a private format, perhaps on a user’s Dashboard or in some other private manner) the statistics about the number of Views each Parcel Listing receives. Now that they’ve done away with the full Parcel Listing (in the V2 Viewer and it seems also in the New Search as well) the most we can hope for is an analysis of how often a Parcel’s Snippet was displayed in response to a Search Query.

Why is it important to know this information? And more to the point, why won’t this lead to rampant spamming of those keywords? The answer is quite simple.

Step 5 – Eliminate the King of the Hill Machine

It’s a problem with Classifieds and it is also a problem with general Search Results. The display order is akin to the child’s game “King of the Hill.” In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot of very competitive people in Second Life. (Oh heck, there’s a lot of very competitive folks in the world too.) The competitiveness itself is not the problem. However the fact that the whole Search Machine is rigged as a “There Can Be Only One!” competition is a problem. What is needed instead is a series of “Strata”, levels of ranking that are lumped together and randomly rotated among those that compete for and win placement in that level.

Let’s take an example of this new “Fair Competition” mechanism … Classifieds. As I mentioned above, the display order of Classifieds right now is based purely on how much the Advertiser pays for their ad. But with a new mechanism based on keyword popularity and price ranges, the maximum amount paid for an ad will quickly plateau … thus resulting in a number of people all paying roughly the same amount. So we create a “Premier Level” grouping that always uses the top five (for example) display slots in the Classifieds listings. Each time a page of Search Results is displayed, those top five slots are filled with a random selection of five Advertisers that have paid enough to attain Premier level status. Without getting too technically deep, it’s an algorithm that looks a lot like dealing out cards from a shuffled deck. The first page of Search Results gets the first five cards, the second page gets the second five, and so on. Every so often the deck is reshuffled. Considering that Classified Ads renew every week at odd times, it should be very easy to cook up a shuffle and display order algorithm that keeps Ads fresh and Relevant.

However the real benefit to this method, the real payoff in eliminating the “King of the Hill” machine is that it gives more Merchants a chance to utilize the advertising benefit of Classified Ads. It does this by placing a cap on the amount of money that can be paid for ads and making the entry price reasonable enough so that anyone can afford at least to get into the game. In short, it makes the fairness more fair. If there is one common theme to almost every complaint hurled at Linden Lab it is that “it’s just not fair”. With a mechanism that balances and shuffles the advertisers around randomly, the fairness is restored, the exposure available to all is increased, and the payoff to Merchants in general is raised. (And if you think about it a bit deeper, you quickly realize the payoff to Linden Lab is higher too as they will bring the bottom end of the Classified Ads payment scale up by quite a bit.)

Step 6 – Keep Paged Search Results

The New Search just recently announced by Linden Lab (see their Blog posting “Test Out New Search, Delivering More Relevant, Faster Results“) violates a number of good design rules, but among the most useless “improvement” is the elimination of pagination in the displayed Search Results. This amounts to some techie being fascinated with their ability to display a never-ending scrolling list of entries. BLAH! Useless! No one complains about having to step from page to page. Furthermore it provides a handy delineation between results AND their relevancy ranking. Those results that appear on page one are the topmost relevant results. Those that appear on subsequent pages are obviously less relevant. Having a continuously scrolling list provides no benefit, lags down your browser as it works ever harder to maintain a never ending growing list of stuff you’ve already seen, and destroys a more valuable attribute of paged results … Relevancy Strata.

With Paged Results, it is very easy to define Relevancy Strata in the results. On the first page, the first three slots can be randomly rotated among the top three relevant results, the next five can be randomly rotated in the same way. The balance of page one and each subsequent page can also be shuffled in a similar manner. Once again this does away with the “King of the Hill” machine and helps balance exposure to all Merchants that are truly Relevant to the Search Query entered.

Step 7 – Sponsored Results

Right now when you search for something, if your Search Query happens to exactly match the name of a Sim (Region) then that Sim is listed first. What a totally bogus waste of space! A Sim is a big place. When you’re searching for something, being plopped in the middle of an entire Sim is a total waste of your time. Does anyone EVER really use that link to go somewhere? More to the point, the Region Names that match are set that way just to lure folks to someplace that probably doesn’t have a whole lot of actually relevant content anyway. So do away with the Region Listing at the top of Search Results and replace it with one to three Sponsored Results.

These Sponsored Results are essentially Ads, but they’re more than just run of the mill ads, they are enhanced ads with graphical elements and sublinks to specific locations within the sponsored Parcel or Region. A basic ad would include just a highlighted snippet with some hand-crafted text. A more advanced (and thus more expensive ad) would include a custom logo, sublinks and hand-crafted snippet text. Again these Sponsored Results would be pooled and randomly rotated from a shuffled deck of paying advertisers. Those Merchants willing to pay the going price would be guaranteed a certain number of “Views” based on the amount they pay. Pay more you get seen more. Pay less, you still get seen but not as often. As with Classified Ads, this method assures even the newer “strapped for cash” Merchants can get some level of exposure without pricing it beyond human conceptual limits, but still guarantees higher visibility to those that want and can afford maximal exposure.

Step 8 – Keep It Reasonable

Right about now, you’re probably reaching a point where it seems like Search is nothing but an Ad Farm. But before you start retching and searching for the barf bag, I need to impose this last requirement. The Ads displayed, their content and their appearance, needs to be kept to a reasonable maximum. It’s not an impossible goal to achieve either. When you consider that Google has the entire Internet to display, yet their results pages are not polluted with nonstop advertisements, you quickly realize it is possible. Linden Lab must be willing to set reasonable limits on what can and cannot appear .. and in what quantity. Some of this control will be best exercised by price controls; the higher the price the less pollution will appear. But some will also need a firm hand, and that means someone has got to take charge and stand in front of the arrows that will undoubtedly fly. However, with reasonable design considerations and careful attention to the controls that exist in the mechanisms I’ve laid out, that job won’t be that tough.

Step 9 – Relevancy

Finally we come to the Big Dog Problem of Search. And here is also where I’m going to cut short tonight’s post. Relevancy itself is a topic that will require an entire novella of its own. Stay tuned and very soon I will post my thoughts on how Relevancy should work, why it should work that way, and how to keep it from being Gamed. But remember, once we turn the whole purpose of Search around .. change it from being a gameable commodity into a profitable resource for both Merchants and Linden Lab, there’s going to be a bit of “Gaming” that goes on anyway. But hey, we’re human. We do that stuff anyway!

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One Comment on How It Should Work: In-World Search Part 2

  1. Tinsel Silvera on Mon, 6th Jun 2011 6:33 AM
  2. The Second Life 2.7.2 (232036) Jun 5 2011 10:55:16 (Second Life Development) version has the new search option. Here are the things that I liked:

    From an aesthetic point I like how it is arranged. The three main default tabs are Events Happening Now, Destination Guide and Real Estate (excellent beginner choices). Classifieds are arranged along the bottom in a separate section. The box for typing in your search word defaults to Everything (another excellent start). Now for the true test. I put in something simple yet specific – my store name of Spoke n’ Cog. It came back with 11 results. 5 are mine specific. Number 6 through 11 had nothing to do with me (however one did have Cog in their name so I will give LL that one). Five bullshit results. And that is where we now get into what I do not like about this search or any other for that matter. And yes I know Google does the same thing – returns to me relevant, semi-relevant and bullshit results as well. I am fairly sure though when I go to Google and search for Spoke n’ Cog I will not get back BDSM results. Actually I did get more results for my store name outside of Second Life than I do inside. As a side note though – I did have to add Second Life key words with my Google search for Spoke n’ Cog otherwise I get a ton of bicyle places.

    Overall I did like the new search. And I liked the one before that. And the one before that. And how many have we had now? I have no doubt that this search will be ruled by the higest paid ads, Linden alts who have businesses inworld, all the friends of Linden Lab, and the usual gamed results, as all those before have been. It is the nature of Linden Lab and how they operate Second Life. Survival of the fitest and what not. I accepted long ago that since I am none of the aforementioned my place in search can be subjective. The fact that I actually got five bonified results makes me happy. I can live with that.