Yet Another Stab At Second Life In-World Search

June 4, 2011 by
Filed under: SL In-World Search 

On May 25th an earthquake echoed through the commerce engine that drives the Second Life Virtual World. Seemingly still oblivious to the intimate relationship between Commerce, Second Life and Linden Lab paychecks, the Search Dev Team at LL announced a complete remake of the only advertising tool that remains within reach of the average Merchant in SL.

The tremors were set loose within a Blog article called “Test Out New Search, Delivering More Relevant, Faster Results“. I strongly recommend you take a moment to go read this Public Relations snow-job first then come back here and we’ll dig into the truth behind the bullsh*t varnish.

In-World Search is an Advertising Tool

Over the past year or so, I’ve had a number of conversations with various folks regarding In-World Search and its purpose in Second Life. A fair number of them have expressed an attitude something along the lines of “if you depend on Search for your business revenue then you’re screwed in the head.” (My paraphrase, not their exact words .. but I think it correctly captures the spirit.) In a very real sense that opinion is correct, but the sad part of that sentiment is it’s not the Merchant’s fault for making it that way. No, the fault lay at LL’s feet entirely, and with their latest “advancement” (read “boondoggle”) they’ve proven yet again that they just do not get it.

As proof of that assertion, allow me to drop a single word on you. I want you to think about the word for a moment and let your mind explore all the various connected concepts and information linked to it in your mind … then tell me if you think it’s an important word or an unimportant word. Ready?

Google

(You promised to stop and think a moment, so no rushing ahead. Give it time to percolate a bit.)

If you own a web site, run a web site, use a web site or know anyone that knows what a web site is, chances are pretty good that you also know the name Google. (And if you don’t know who Google is, what the heck are you doing reading this?!?) The megacorp that is Google began with one simple idea, finding the stuff you want on the vast plain of the Internet was a service that everyone needed. Their approach was to do it right, with minimal fuss, minimal harassment of the people searching … and a mature perception of what a Search Tool really was meant to do. To their credit, they’ve pretty much succeeded too.

When you apply the lens of Commerce to view the application of Google’s Search Engine, you quickly come to the realization (the same as Google realized) that Internet Search is an absolute necessity for companies that do business on the Internet. As a result of that realization, Google has branched off into such ventures as Google Ad-Words. In short, Internet Search is a tool … a very powerful and valuable tool … for advertising a company and its products or services.

Why Does Linden Lab Hate Advertising?

I’m going to try and not wander off into tangential esoteric rants here, but this question needs some quick examination. For some reason that remains unclear, Linden Lab absolutely despises advertising of any sort. Perhaps it’s due to their Utopian view of how the world (or at least the Internet) should be run. But no matter the reason, it’s a well proven truth that Linden Lab discourages commercial advertising of any and all sort. They not only do not engage in much advertising themselves, but they have actively hobbled or decapitated any means of commercial advertisement that springs up in and around Second Life.

The one obvious advertising tool they provide is the system of Classified Ads that appear alongside Search Results. Yet even though it exists, it is anemic, ugly, often useless and just recently was dealt a serious blow when the maximum size of a Classified’s body text was cut in half. It does not allow graphics, it does not come in various sizes priced to reflect positioning or “exposure” value, and it is saddled with a “Love Machine” style pricing model that is so anti-commerce as to be laughable. Clearly it was developed by someone that hasn’t a clue how advertising does and should work .. and just as clearly by someone that doesn’t understand why advertising is a necessity in an environment that runs on the lubrication of commercial trade.

Gaming or Advertising?

When you accept the true purpose of a Search Tool in the same way that Google has accepted it, you quickly come to the obvious conclusion that proper utilization of a Search Tool is as a form of Advertising. Yet there persists a very high percentage of merchants within Second Life that see every method of Search Optimization as a type of cheating they like to call “Gaming Search.” I’ve written about this perception before, but it bears revisiting now because of the upcoming changes in In-World Search and why I believe Linden Lab is once again going the wrong damn direction.

The term “Gaming” really means “my competition is doing something I either cannot or will not do.” The emotional content of the term is very high as well, primarily because people often preload it with the sentiment that only “bad people” do it. Lest you start thinking I advocate any and all methods, let me be very clear .. there are methods and uses of Search Optimization that are just flat wrong. But controlling those uses is a Social Engineering effort that can only be properly undertaken when understood to BE Social Engineering problems. If you insist on lumping any and all uses into the same barrel of rotten eggs then you will never find a resolution and, even worse, your attempts to “Fix” the problems will result only in more damage to the body you are trying to heal.

It is my contention this is exactly the process we are witnessing with Linden Lab’s continual jiggering with Search. They are operating on the twin faulty assumptions that “Commercial Advertising is Bad” and “Anyone that uses Search as a tool is Bad”. In their attempts to engineer a technical solution to cure these “Ills” of the Commercial Body that feeds Second Life, they are overdosing it with poisons and treatments that do more harm than the “illness” ever possibly could. (And it’s not even an illness dammit, it’s how the system of Commerce works! *sigh*)

How To Fix Search – Hide The Knobs

Because of the perception that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a “Bad Thing”, Linden Lab has from the beginning struggled to bring more and more Search Ranking factors under their control and hide as many of them as possible. Late in 2010 they hit on the idea of using a bias based on Parcel Size. At various times they have tried using other knobs too. Yet every one of their attempts to “fix the problem” has instead resulted in more and more financial damage to the Merchants that feed money into Second Life. They never once actually helped those Merchants that were not benefiting from Search, they only punished and damaged those that were.

Maybe I’m daft, but I’ve always believed that to fix something that was broken, you had to actually FIX the broken stuff and not just break the unbroken stuff. However their efforts have to date only succeeded in shaking up the results so that those who had successfully optimized their listing to rank high were shuffled off to the end somewhere, and then replaced those “bad listings” with totally irrelevant ones. (My favorite example is the shake-up that dislodged my Teleporter store from the first page and replaced it with listings for a Language School and a Sculpty maker. WTF?!?)

This goal of theirs, hiding the knobs so people couldn’t figure them out and “game” them … has been a real Cat and Mouse game since they put the GSA 6 online early in 2010. Every time they come up with some new tweak that effectively punishes (in their minds) the “bad people”, those of us that engage in SEO for a living sat down, studied and analyzed … and came up with a solution that got our listings back on top. Seriously, I bet we drove the poor LL Search Dev Team nuts.

(BTW: A little side note needs to be mentioned here. When I say “those of us that engage in SEO for a living” .. I don’t mean just SEO Consultants. The tools I’ve sold and the information and education I’ve shared over the past year have enabled lots of Merchants to do their own SEO work … and I’ve only worked with a tiny handful of the Merchants in Second Life. There are far more that have done it themselves, studied on their own, learned and analyzed on their own and come up with solutions on their own. And why did they do it? Because In-World Search is an Advertising Tool of value to them. Without it, many have lost their businesses, left Second Life or downsized to a mere shadow of their former size. They did it because the success of their business is the key to their survival, and to ignore Search, to eschew SEO is to sacrifice a VERY valuable tool to aid that survival.)

So Linden Lab has tired of playing Cat and Mouse with us, their customers, and has decided the way to absolutely guarantee there is NO way possible for us to cheat by “Gaming Search” is to use a Search Engine that has no knobs we can touch. After their wonderful efforts with hermetically sealing (and thus rendering useless) the Search function in their new Marketplace by using the Lucene engine, they have decided it’s time to roll that same behemoth overtop In-World Search by switching everything over to the same engine wrapped in the SOLR container.

SOLR/Lucene – Gaming by the Games Master

Lucene is the preeminent search engine available via Open Source these days. It has gained a lot of well-deserved recognition because it has so many knobs and fiddlies that an engineering team can use to properly sculpt the Search Service. But the main thing to remember is … those knobs are available only to those on the “Inside” … meaning only available to Linden Lab and their Search Dev Team.

Okay, I hear you thinking it … “Why is it such a bad thing that only Linden Lab can control those things?” The answer is quite simple. If we, the Merchants that feed the life blood revenue in and through Second Life, need a skateboard and Linden Lab in their mistaken assumptions about our needs builds us a kite … what freakin’ good is that? As I’ve pointed out above, Linden Lab is operating on the mistaken beliefs that “Commercial Advertising is Bad” and “Anyone that uses Search as a tool is Bad”. So once they take back every bit of control, hide all the knobs inside the SOLR/Lucene armor-clad housing, the result of their “fix” will be a tool that is totally useless period.

Take a look at this quote from the blog:

“Our new search engine considers Second Life specific data, such as how many people are at an event versus web-based data, so search results are more relevant and less subject to spam.”

Those words make my butt pucker for a couple of reasons. First of all, how exactly does the number of people at an Event relate to the quality of merchandise or the type of merchandise at a store? How exactly is that in the least bit “Relevant”? All it does is change the game from adding relevant keywords to your Parcel/Store Listing (as it’s done now) to one of “spend money hosting popular events.” So you want to be the top Shoe Seller in Second Life? Build an event stage and hire artists to draw crowds. You can still sell crap but you’ll be “Relevant”. *facepalm*

The second reason is it points out exactly what they’re doing. They are once again yanking away the controls the Merchants have and understand and replacing them with a new set of completely invisible controls. Because SOLR/Lucene allow them to factor in a whole series of data points completely impossible for anyone to measure, they assert that the results will be much more relevant and thus better. But what data points do they have that weren’t already included?

Traffic and Picks

Oh .. right .. forgot about those. NOT!

Traffic was eliminated early on when the current In-World Search on the GSA 6 debuted in early 2010. The initial reason was that Traffic wasn’t something they could easily get hold of and put into the HTML web pages that the GSA indexed. However time has shown they can add other such trivia without trouble, so why hasn’t Traffic come back? Of course theres also the tiny problem that people Game Traffic all the time. If LL actually designed a Traffic measuring system that worked, Traffic as a Metric could be confidently added back into Search Ranking as it stands now … there wouldn’t be a need to dump the whole thing and start over.

Picks were eliminated also, but for a much different and IMO very valid reason … noise abatement. True to the human beast we all are (inside our Avatars), Residents of Second Life use the Picks in their Profiles for anything BUT lending kudos to stores and destinations. In short, the content of Picks were very rarely actually relevant to the location included in the Pick. I have argued for a long time now that we need a new device similar to the Picks but engineered so it can only be used to provide relevancy to the location specified. I had hoped that since Linden Lab has been retooling User Profiles that they would also add this new device as well. Sadly, I think they’re more focused on making jiggly boobies than helping Commerce. (So sue me! I still have hope!)

Future Recommendations

If you’ve read this far through yet another of my Epic Walls-O-Text .. you need a life! Or maybe you just need some calming words and advice for how to prepare for the future. Well, as your reward .. here they are.

First, make sure your Land Name and Description are human readable. Get rid of all the fancy characters and doodly-bits that make it look “pretty”. Reword it to say exactly what you sell, what service you provide and make sure every word is spelled correctly. If English is not your first language, ask someone that does speak it to help or run it through a spell-checker that understands English.

Second, if your land is Group Owned, do everything you can to increase the size of your Group membership. The size of a Group is one of those “Second Life Only” data points I expect them to incorporate. If your land is not Group Owned, seriously consider creating a Group just for that purpose and then hold a membership drive to increase the number of people in it.

Third, revive your Traffic Gaming tools. Traffic is yet another of those metrics that are “invisible” now but that I expect them to fold into the calculations. If you don’t have an event stage now, consider building one. Participate in Hunts. Do whatever you can to build up your Traffic and get folks visiting your store on a routine basis.

Fourth, Spam the HELL out of your Parcel Listing. If you aren’t using a device to do so now, get one. If you’d rather not use a spamming device then do it manually. If you’d rather not engage in adding keyword relevant prims then my last piece of advice is just for you.

Fifth, go investigate the other Virtual World Grids that are beginning to build their own Commerce Systems. InWorldz and AviNation spring to mind but there are more than just those two.

Because honestly, if you depend on just Second Life for your business revenue then you’re screwed in the head!


Visit the DGP4SL Store on SL Marketplace

Comments

5 Comments on Yet Another Stab At Second Life In-World Search

  1. SL Search Update on Sat, 4th Jun 2011 10:57 PM
  2. […] Yet Another Stab At Second Life In-World Search […]

  3. Pamela Galli on Sat, 4th Jun 2011 11:14 PM
  4. Thanks Darrius. From what I see, retail traffic does not count for much in the new search. I went to some of the supposedly top results for “prefab” and the traffic was very low. The reason for this was obvious — there was nothing there to induce anyone to hang around for the 5 minutes it takes to register traffic. Either not much to see, or what there was to see what not what many would be looking for.

    Also, parcel size was also relatively small.

    I just bought a second sim for my total 35 houses (not counting the other two sims for furniture). That’s 128,000 sq m I am paying for just for prefabs. Traffic (all genuine) is good, sales are excellent — and yet I am ranked in the new search far below locations with a much smaller selection.

    Why am I paying tier for two prefab sims when I could be top ranked with a 2048 with low traffic and, I am betting, few sales?

  5. Nalates Urriah on Sat, 4th Jun 2011 11:15 PM
  6. LL is based in SF. Fair is an important progressive concept. Business is bad and profit is evil…

    I’m doubtful we will ever have an honest search in SL. We will have an ever changing one pursuing fairness… never mind that is is perpetually useless.

  7. Shug Maitland on Sun, 5th Jun 2011 2:19 PM
  8. LL has a quite good product search engine in Marketplace. They misuse it as a catalog. Except for the most trivial or emergency items I use Marketplace to find in world stores, not always easy to do, especially if you search on one machine and are in world on another. worth the trouble though.

  9. Darrius Gothly on Sun, 5th Jun 2011 3:12 PM
  10. @Shug – You’ve touched on a topic I’ll be addressing soon … the link (that ought to be there) between Marketplace and In-World Stores. As for Marketplace Search, it still suffers the “Long Tail” search phrase problem wherein it considers multiple word searches as separate searches for each word then merges the results. When you use that method for a population size like we have for In-World stores, the results will be beyond useless … they will be flat-out discouraging.