Search and Ye Might Find

Roman Mars [00:00:00] This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars. This is going to sound like a stand-up comedy bit, but I was on my way to the airport recently and I needed the confirmation email for my flight so I could get my boarding pass. So, I pulled out my phone and I typed in some keywords into the search bar of the mail program. I started with the airline I thought I was taking, but that search pulled up mailing list promotions and old flights. And I know if I search long enough and hard enough, I could eventually find it–but the thing is, by now I’m at the airport and I just have this naive conviction that searching should be better and easier. But I often come up empty. There are days when I feel like I’ve Control+F’d up my life into oblivion and I’ll never easily find the email I need–much less all photos and documents on my hard drive. The good news is, I’m not alone. Adam Rogers feels this particular pain, too. 

Adam Rogers [00:00:58] You know, you think email’s a problem–try to find a slack you once wrote. You know? Try to find a tweet. Try to search for a photo on Flickr or Instagram. Pinterest. Like, I dare you. 

Roman Mars [00:01:12] Adam’s a senior tech correspondent at Insider. He’s been thinking and writing about what’s known in the industry as “search.” For the last decade, people have been grumbling about not being able to find things online, both in our private data and on the public Web. 

Adam Rogers [00:01:27] I would say to people, “I think search sucks.” And other people would say, “Oh my God, it really does.” 

Roman Mars [00:01:34] For Adam, the stakes for this go beyond me not being able to find that one email. 

Adam Rogers [00:01:39] I will tell you a personal story that is one of the ways that I started to think about this: my grandmother was a professor of library science at UC Berkeley. 

Roman Mars [00:01:48] When Adam’s grandmother was alive, she lived in a small apartment. Every wall was filled with rows and rows of books. 

Adam Rogers [00:01:55] She was a librarian. They were really well-organized. 

Roman Mars [00:01:58] The books held all the knowledge that Adam’s grandmother wanted to access. It was arranged by topic and author–complete with important search tools, notes and tabs, stuck into all the various volumes that she could reference when looking to pull up some tidbit of information. Adam was charmed by the whole thing. 

Adam Rogers [00:02:16] But as she got older and was a little bit less coherent, she didn’t remember stuff as well and the notes became less and less coherent. And… I find that terrifying. 

Roman Mars [00:02:28] Adam’s grandmother had built a working search function–and it failed. All the same millions of pages of information were still there lining the walls, but she couldn’t access this archive of knowledge. According to Adam, the same thing could be happening when we search for anything on our computers. 

Adam Rogers [00:02:45] More and more, we outsource our information, our personal information, and our autobiographical memories. We outsource that more and more to digital media now. 

Roman Mars [00:02:57] Not just the sum total of human knowledge, but also our own photos, emails and memories stored in the cloud. 

Adam Rogers [00:03:05] As we put more and more of that somewhere else besides our own heads, search becomes more and more of a… existential crisis, not just an annoying thing where I can’t find the email with my confirmation number in it. We begin to potentially literally forget ourselves. 

Roman Mars [00:03:20] Our ability to search and retrieve information at our whim feels like one of the most important developments of the digital age. So, how do we get to a point where it feels like search is failing us? And how do we fix it before it’s too late? Today, the word “search” sort of feels synonymous with the word “Google”–but I think it’s actually one of the oldest design problems in the world. From the time humans started writing stuff down, the struggle has been how to organize it all so that its contents wouldn’t be lost in the stacks. Search has always been an attempt to fix that problem. 

Adam Rogers [00:03:57] I think, for our purposes here, it does make a lot of sense to think of search as a designed experience. It wasn’t just walking into a library and wandering around. Ever since, you know, the priests who ran the libraries at Alexandria knew which scrolls went in which cubbyhole, or however they did it, and leading up through the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress numbers–all these things are search. These things are what make search possible. 

Roman Mars [00:04:23] Long before we could search for things online, Google was essentially a person–a reference librarian. If you wanted to find something on, say, growing vegetables, you could go to the Gardening or Farming sections of the library. But in the thousands of books in that huge section, you’d quickly get overwhelmed. That’s where reference librarians and archivists come in. They take your topic and help you narrow it down even further, applying their own nuance, knowledge, and specialized training to help you search better and find exactly what you’re looking for. That’s how search operated for centuries–by topic, mediated by human-to-human interaction. And it worked pretty well. 

Ed [00:05:04] Good evening, Dr. Bush. 

Vannevar Bush [00:05:05] Why, good evening, Ed.

Roman Mars [00:05:08] But eventually, this easy flow of search hit a snag. In the mid 1940s, the snag was highlighted by an American engineer named Vannevar Bush. 

Ed [00:05:19] Well, sir, I have known you a number of years, and last week I managed to mispronounce “Vannevar,” and I apologize. 

Vannevar Bush [00:05:26] Well, you’ve got plenty of company there, Ed. Most everyone mispronounces it. I think the record was held by one postmaster who managed to pronounce it in four different ways in the course of one evening. 

Roman Mars [00:05:40] At the time, Vannevar was convinced that problems with search were hindering human progress. He pointed to Mendel’s ideas on genetics, for example. These ideas were lost for an entire generation, he said, because they were buried in the avalanche of newer research. There was no efficient way for people to parse through all that information. But Vannevar was a big believer in the potential of machines. 

Vannevar Bush [00:06:06] But as time goes on, the analytical machine, which will supplement a man’s thinking methods, which will think for it, will have as great an effect on his grasp of the world and his access to data and so on–his manipulation of it–will have as great an effect in that way, as the invention of the machine way back–took the load off of men by giving them mechanical power instead of the power of their muscles. 

Roman Mars [00:06:38] So in 1945, Vannevar took to the page and dreamed up an imaginary, futuristic solution to the problem of search. A machine called Memex. The Memex would make search easier. It would look like a desk. There’d be a keyboard, viewing screens, and storage space for all of human knowledge, as long as it was on microfilm and could fit into a desk drawer. 

Adam Rogers [00:07:00] On the left side, there would be all the information in the universe, and it would all have links. And then on the right side, you would follow those links for the information you wanted. So, the search became about connections within what you were looking for. 

Roman Mars [00:07:14] Theoretically, the user could teach the Memex which words were relevant to each other. So, if the word “vulture” in one document makes me think of “death,” I could tell the Memex to connect those two words. Then, when I search for the word “vulture,” all the documents featuring “death” that I previously linked would show up. I could scroll through all the results by turning a crank. In essence, the Memex user could build their own little analog algorithm for search. The Memex was never built, but Paul Kahn–someone who wrote a whole book about Vannevar’s Memex–well, in the 1990s, he animated how the Memex might have worked. 

Paul Kahn [00:07:57] First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, and leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item and ties the two together. 

Roman Mars [00:08:19] Vannevar called this process of linking two keywords together “trail building.”

Paul Kahn [00:08:29] Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally, he inserts a comment of his own–either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. 

Roman Mars [00:08:42] The idea of searching documents not by broad topic but specific word and then linking related documents together turned out to be right on the mark. About 50 years after Vannevar dreamed up the Memex, his ideas about search came to fruition with a little thing called “The World Wide Web.” This Memex-inspired idea of searching by keyword became the new default–whereas searching by topic, like you would in a library, is similar to looking through the table of contents of a book. Keyword search is like using the index; it is much more precise. And searching by keyword worked well for a time when you’d type in a word and get only a couple dozen results. 

Adam Rogers [00:09:29] But as the digital information space gets bigger and bigger, things begin to evolve and change. 

Roman Mars [00:09:36] In 1993, there were 130–yes, you heard that right–130 websites on the internet. Three years later, there were over 100,000. 

Adam Rogers [00:09:47] So, that starts to happen very soon when the worldwide web becomes something that’s more than just an academic… more than just the thing that connects all of the physics labs. 

Roman Mars [00:09:56] Doing an online search by keyword was now posing problems because the internet was starting to feel crowded and clunky and the usual ways of searching were feeling outdated. 

Adam Rogers [00:10:06] The kind of searches that I might have done on LexisNexis or ProQuest in the eighties or nineties is very carefully constructed searches, where you had to pay per search. So, you really wanted that one search to work because you couldn’t keep doing it because it would cost money. And that felt like a very constructed and constrained experience. 

Roman Mars [00:10:26] Which brings us to when search, as we know it today, was born. 

Adam Rogers [00:10:30] A couple of kids at Stanford come up with another approach to searching called “PageRank,” and that becomes the basis for Google. 

Roman Mars [00:10:38] Google runs using PageRank. 

Adam Rogers [00:10:40] And what PageRank says is, “We’re going to count how many things link to something.” 

Roman Mars [00:10:48] The idea behind the PageRank algorithm is not only will your search engine find the sites featuring whatever word you asked for, but it will find the best sites with that word. 

Adam Rogers [00:10:58] We’re going to say that if something has a lot of links to it, that’s a better source of information–we now prioritize that above things that have the same kind of information in them but don’t have as many links. 

Roman Mars [00:11:10] As the internet expanded, more and more spammy or irrelevant web pages would come up in search results. PageRank helped filter those out by emphasizing high quality results. A .edu link or anything from the BBC, for example, would rank higher in a search result than, say, an indie blog–in part because many other sites would be linking to the more well-known pages. 

Adam Rogers [00:11:34] To me, this is super cool. I love this as an insight because it turns out that that’s the same way that, like, memories are reinforced in the brain. How many times do we go back to them? It’s the same way that ants tell each other, “There’s food over there–not over there.” If an ant walks over the trail and leaves pheromones on it again and again and again, that trail becomes more important to the colony. 

Roman Mars [00:11:56] Pretty soon–with the help of PageRank–Google became a verb. 

Adam Rogers [00:12:00] And since everybody goes to them, they have statistics on what people search for and how they search for them. So, they have this incredible statistical oomph. You know, they get billions and billions and billions of searches every day. And only about 15% of the searches that they see in a given day are new–that they’ve never seen before. So, 85% of the searches that the world does on Google every day are things they’ve already seen. They’ve seen that search before, and they can reproduce it. Type in some words… and here’s the stuff. Here’s access to human knowledge. 

Google Spokesperson [00:12:28] Google’s the biggest, bestest, most innovativest website–well, I guess search engine–in the galaxy. 

Roman Mars [00:12:34] Here’s a clip from a TV segment in the early 2000s, offering its viewers tips on how to search on Google–the hot new search engine in town. 

Google Spokesperson [00:12:41] So, we’re here to pump you up with a few tricks that will bring that power back to your browser. There are seven tricks in total. The first one–really easy to do. We’ll open up Google here in Mozilla–by the way, they just released a new version of Mozilla at Mozilla.org. They’re up to 1.2 now–very, very good browser. 

Roman Mars [00:12:59] What a time… With Google at our fingertips and the proliferation of search bars on every digital interface, it felt like we had finally made it to the very top of human knowledge. 

Adam Rogers [00:13:09] And it felt like not a constrained experience. It felt like, “Oh, that’s done. That’s fixed. It works.” 

Roman Mars [00:13:17] In fact, the Google search bar–with all of its millions of data points–is so good it changed our expectations of what search is. And today, that’s part of the problem. 

Adam Rogers [00:13:27] We were all trained very well to think, “Oh, well, now search bars are just like the Google search bar everywhere. And everywhere I see a search bar, it’s going to be just as good as the Google search bar is.” And then… you try that on Amazon. 

Roman Mars [00:13:38] For many of us, when we type a query into an e-commerce website, we expect that the results will be ranked for us by relevance to our search. But that is not how it works. 

Adam Rogers [00:13:49] So, a place that’s trying to sell something is trying to sell– Like, if it has more of one thing in its warehouses than another, it’ll try to push that onto you. If it has something that’s on sale, it might show you that first. If it has a product where the people who make it have a pay for play deal with the e-commerce site, it’ll show you that stuff first. 

Roman Mars [00:14:10] The result is that the thing you search for–that you are trying to buy–will be buried by results for stuff that the company wants you to buy. 

Adam Rogers [00:14:19] You can put in the specific name of something in the search bar on Amazon, and it won’t show up until you scroll two or three screens down. And that– I mean, I’m still shocked by that. I’m naive, or I’m stupid, or something. I’m stunned. Like, “No, I put in the name of the book. I know what book I want.” And, you know, you still got to scroll to find it because there are all kinds of other competitive commercial pressures. 

Roman Mars [00:14:40] The same thing happens with private search, when we’re trying to retrieve something like a flight confirmation number or a vacation photo from the cloud. On some level, we expect every search bar to work like Google’s, even though it isn’t Google. 

Adam Rogers [00:14:53] So, personal information management turns out to still be kind of an unsolved problem–more so than wide search. 

Roman Mars [00:14:59] Adam says that the reason searching your own files isn’t as streamlined as web search is because your personal email or photo database is private. Software engineers can’t improve on algorithms as easily as Google can on the web because with their private data, there’s less statistical commonalities to draw from. Grain of salt here–Google supposedly doesn’t release information about this, so we don’t know for sure about all that. What we do know is that not being able to find our stuff can have consequences. 

Adam Rogers [00:15:29] And that’s a personal and also a cultural amnesia that I think becomes troubling. You lose moments from the past. You end up only existing in the moment, like, where you share the stuff, and then it doesn’t exist anymore because you can’t go back and search it. 

Roman Mars [00:15:43] In the years since Google rose to prominence, it set the standard for what search could be. But lately, that glow seems to be fading. And in fact, it turns out that almost as soon as it was born, Google–almost without us noticing–began to fail. 

Adam Rogers [00:15:59] I found it incredibly chilling to be talking to somebody who works on search at Google and have that person say, “Yeah, search really isn’t a solved problem.” 

Roman Mars [00:16:09] And it hasn’t been for a long time. In the early 2000s, Google started getting bogged down by monetization and people trying to game the system. One way this played out was with SEO or Search Engine Optimization. SEO is basically the process of getting a web page ranked higher in web search results. In the early years of SEO, webmasters would often stuff their web pages with keywords to get them to rank higher, regardless of actual relevance. And the strategies keep evolving. 

Adam Rogers [00:16:42] I was just reading some folks today talking about this on social media about how, like, everything you look for on Google has these, like, 2000-word introductions of meaningless gibberish, like, before you get to the recipe or before you get to the instructions for changing the memory card or whatever. And that’s because one of the things that Google came to prioritize, it seems–they’re not that open about these things–is how long somebody spends on the page. 

Roman Mars [00:17:07] Add all that up and this is what you get: when you type in a web search query, it can feel like you’re playing hide and seek but for information. To find the thing you search for first, you’ll need to scroll past rows of stuff labeled “Ads” or “Maps” and horizontal boxes of questions you didn’t ask. Another reason search engines like Google so often miss their mark is because–unlike, say, a librarian’s approach, which might be more like “Here are ten books you could read to try to figure it out on your own”–Google tries to give you the most popular, quote-unquote “best” search results. In other words, a direct answer. 

Adam Rogers [00:17:44] It can sort of understand what’s on a web page, find the information that it thinks you are looking for based on its statistical analysis of all of the billions and billions of searches that it sees all the time, and feed you an answer. And we now have come to think, “Oh, well, that must be the answer, then.”

Roman Mars [00:18:00] But when a search engine prioritizes the visibility of one seemingly popular answer over another, sometimes it can lead to misleading or even harmful outcomes. Like in 2021, when the result of a single Google search sparked an uproar in India. 

Newscaster [00:18:17] An angry flashpoint has emerged in Karnataka after search engine Google showed Kannada language in bad light, calling it the ugliest language in the country. Huge outcry was triggered after this Google search emerged…

Roman Mars [00:18:31] Someone had typed the words “ugliest language in India” into Google, and the search engine embarrassingly answered. Google named an actual language in India and insulted 43 million people in the process. 

Newscaster [00:18:43] The outrage prompted Google to issue a detailed statement apologizing for the gaffe and said they would improve their algorithm. But the Karnataka government has made it clear an apology is not enough.  

Roman Mars [00:18:59] So, in light of all this, search engines are evolving again to fix the issue of private search. Not working like the Google search bar, some search companies are supposedly considering creating search engines that could dig through both your personal information and go out on the web. 

Adam Rogers [00:19:15] You’ll pay us a little bit of money, and then it’ll be private. And we’ll search your personal information as well as the web. And we’ll do it really well, you know, so you’ll be able to find your flight confirmation number, and your frequent flier number, and the name of that person who you worked with that one time, and all that other stuff that we search for on our own computer–that one document. 

Roman Mars [00:19:36] And to fix the issue of constrained single answer results, Google announced last year an AI technology that would attempt to understand not just what the searcher is typing but what the searcher is thinking. Meaning the search would no longer be driven by topic or keyword, but by what the AI thinks the searcher meant by those words. 

Adam Rogers [00:19:56] You can have a kind of iterative back and forth because you’ll have a search engine that actually understands language instead of just looks for keywords. 

Roman Mars [00:20:03] There’s a promise in this–and there’s also a risk that as search companies start to behave more like humans with their own ideas, they might continue to algorithmically nudge us away from our intended searches and into unexpected directions, which feels creepy and consequential if you think about all the life decisions that you make in a given year based on information you process after Googling. But Google’s vision of the future points to something already starting to happen in the world of search–this time on the part of the searcher. 

Adam Rogers [00:20:37] One move that a lot of people now use is they will use Google with the keywords that they have to search for but tell it to only search Reddit. 

Roman Mars [00:20:44] Increasingly, people are turning to Reddit to search for information. But they’re using Google to do it because Reddit’s own search function is supposedly not very good. 

Adam Rogers [00:20:53] So, you can use Google to find the subject, and then you have human beings actually answering your question. 

Roman Mars [00:20:58] On Reddit, someone looking for information on keeping their garden vegetables alive can eavesdrop on a conversation between niche experts in humid or desert climates for a particular plant. Or they can engage in a real human conversation about, say, how much water does a thing actually need, using Google to search Reddit for human conversations. It’s a little janky, but it may be the best solution for a search that we have right now. In a way, it comes close to replicating the experience of talking to a good old-fashioned librarian. 

Adam Rogers [00:21:28] The thing that the conversation with the reference librarian–that was sort of the classic model of search–would give you is if you didn’t really know what you were looking for, the reference librarian would help you figure out what you were looking for. It turns out you were looking for something different. Turns out there’s a whole related thing. There’s a whole other room of the library that has more that you might want. 

Roman Mars [00:21:45] Between Google’s new AI and the wild world of Reddit, the future of search is beginning to look a lot like the past. Ultimately, the questions pertaining to search aren’t getting easy answers anytime soon. Questions like: “Could there be a better way to order the world’s information?” “How do we organize the stuff that we know so that the next person can know it, too?” And “What time am I flying out of JFK anyway?” These are some big questions–the answers to which we may never know. Coming up after the break, I talk with our digital director, Kurt Kohlstedt, about his personal favorite approach to searching. So, when we were making this episode, Lasha and I relied in part on another 99PI colleague to help us better understand search–both its history and, you know, workarounds to use search more effectively. And so, we called on Kurt Kohlstedt, digital director. There’s a reason why he’s called “digital director.” And so, he’s joined me to go through, you know, both of those in a little bit more depth. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:23:13] I’ve been steeped in this world of search for a very long time now. And like everybody else, I have to search for stuff. But I also ran a number of web publications, which relied in part on visitors from search engines for ad revenue. So, yeah, it’s fair to say I have spent some time studying SEO. 

Roman Mars [00:23:32] Yeah. And that is Search Engine Optimization, which I know kind of peripherally from having stuff on the web for a while. Yeah. So, what is that? Like, as a person who ran websites using SEO, what is that all about? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:23:48] So, a lot of it is white hat, right? It’s, like, aboveboard stuff like, “Hey, I’ve got a local architecture firm and when people search for an architecture firm in this area, I should show up in the search results.” But a lot of it is ethically much murkier, and it’s been that way basically from the beginning. 

Roman Mars [00:24:09] Okay, so what are some examples in the beginning of people using SEO in a bad way? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:24:14] Right. So, I have one of me using it in a bad way, which is that… Yeah. I mean, I was a teenager. 

Roman Mars [00:24:23] “The call is coming from inside the house!” 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:24:25] Yes. Yes. So, in the nineties, I built a fan page for a band that I will never tell you the name of out of sheer embarrassment. And one of the things I did was add in any word I thought somebody might search in relation to the band–like, other similar bands and stuff like that. Just tons and tons of these words at the bottom of the page in small font and sort of half-hidden, you know, with the color that kind of matched the page. I mean, I was, you know, basically… Yeah, well, turns out this is a well-known tactic called “keyword stuffing.” And it used to kind of work. Like, Google used to be a little bit simpler and would just kind of read what’s on the page and try to deliver results. But of course, these days, the AI is much more sophisticated. And if you actually try to do that today, Google will not only catch you, but they will, like, potentially de-list your site for doing something like that. 

Roman Mars [00:25:20] Hmm. Okay. So, if the algorithm is getting smarter and catching these kinds of things, why isn’t search just getting better and better? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:25:28] Yeah. So, the search engine optimization industry is huge and they’re highly motivated. So, every time Google comes up with something, they come up with something else. And it makes sense if you think about it. Like, they throw so much money at this because if they can get their business to come up first in a search “organically,” as it’s called–without having to pay for ads or anything–it can mean the difference between success and failure, right? So, everyone is forced to get more clever about their strategies. And then Google, for its part, has become a lot less transparent over time about what they factor into their search results–and for good reason, right? To deter these unethical players who learn the rules and then learn how to cheat from them. 

Roman Mars [00:26:14] Yeah. So, it’s kind of this arms race, but also, like, things get more secret as part of the arms race as well. And so, given the current state of things, what is your advice for people trying to search and find stuff? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:26:30] Well, it depends upon the kind of thing, as you’d imagine. But… I want to walk you and our listeners through my personal favorite strategy, which honestly, I use to search for everything from beard trimmer reviews to tips for taking care of succulents. 

Roman Mars [00:26:46] Okay. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:26:47] And so, I’ll start with the first example–and that’s called a “transactional search,” right? Like, I’m looking to buy a beard trimmer. 

Roman Mars [00:26:54] Okay. I mean, now that you mention it, I seem to need a new beard trimmer all the time. So, I’m apparently not buying the right beard trimmer. So… 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:27:03] Same here; they always seem to break. 

Roman Mars [00:27:05] Yeah, they do. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:27:05] Right? Yeah. So, I could start on Amazon, and type in “beard trimmer,” and then sort those results by average customer reviews because that way, at least hopefully you get the best ones first. 

Roman Mars [00:27:16] Yeah. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:27:16] And that can work. Or I can search in Google, and click the shopping tab, and–you know–I’ll get some results there. But here’s what I actually do. In Google, type in something like “best beard trimmer” then “site: Reddit.com.” And that way, you’ll only get results from Reddit’s website. 

Roman Mars [00:27:38] Hmm. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:27:39] And for those who don’t know, Reddit is this huge website with tons of subforums called “subreddits.” And there are some of these that are really big, like news, and some are really niche subjects, like men’s hair care. 

Roman Mars [00:27:52] And I’m pretty much–you know–I can follow what the logic of this is. But I guess my question is: why would you trust Reddit over, say, reviews on Amazon or a third-party website? It seems like it’s still user reviews in a way. Yeah. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:28:07] Yeah. I mean, that’s a great question because, you know, you wouldn’t think– Like, it just seems kind of random, right? But the reality is that review websites, particularly ones that have gamed their way to the top of Google, are a crapshoot. You might find legitimately good or helpful reviews, or you might find somebody who’s writing about a product specifically because they’ll get a commission if you click a link on their site and buy that product. 

Roman Mars [00:28:32] Hmm. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:28:32] And then on Amazon? Reviews have become sketchier and sketchier over the years for various reasons–some of which we talked about in this episode. 

Roman Mars [00:28:40] Yeah. And you can feel it, you know what I’m saying? When you look at Amazon. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:28:45] Yeah. You really can, right? But on Reddit, there are these subreddits for virtually anything. And gaming every related community to a certain product or something–it would actually be pretty hard to do. Maybe someday AIs will figure it out–but for now, it’s kind of out of reach for most SEOs. And with that beard trimmer search, for instance–I put this in and I landed on conversations in a subreddit called “One Bag,” which is a community I didn’t even know about that’s all about minimalist travel. So, that’s cool, right? That’s relevant. Like, those guys probably know what they’re doing. And then I also found a search result in “Buy It for Life,” which, as you can imagine, is people discussing high quality things that hopefully will last the rest of their lives, right? Not cheap beard trimmers like ours that keep breaking. And the key part to this is there’s no financial incentive for these people, right? Like, they’re not linking you out to products with commissions. They’re just communities discussing these things openly. And they might not always be right, but there is this voting system and so good things tend to rise to the top there. 

Roman Mars [00:29:53] So, if I were to do a search like this, would I want to look for the highest voted result? Is that how it works? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:29:58] Yeah. I mean, that is a good place to start, at least. And beyond that, too, usually there will be responses to that top loaded thing, and people will discuss things back and forth–pointing out downsides or suggest the alternatives in these comment threads. 

Roman Mars [00:30:13] Wow. I mean, I think I’ve noticed this happening more and more–that Reddit has been part of my searching for information, and it really kind of makes a ton of sense. And so that’s very cool. But I never thought of it as something so practical as looking for a beard trimmer. It was always like a piece of information or people discussing, yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:31] Totally. Totally. And that’s the sort of other domain of search–this category that’s called “informational search.” And Reddit is really good for that, too. So again, sort of starting from the beginning here, it’s like you could go to YouTube and look for a tutorial about how to take care of your succulents. And often you’ll get, like, pretty good results, you know? But if you’re just watching one video, you’re getting, like, one person’s opinion and, like review websites, they’re also usually monetized. So, there could be, like, a conflicting reason that they’re, you know, making all these videos, right? They might not really be experts. And, you know, that obviously can work against your need to find impartial and useful advice. 

Roman Mars [00:31:14] Right. So, I assume this could take us back to Reddit, where we could actually, like– Some evaluation of even these videos. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:19] Yeah, exactly. And it’s basically the same process as before, right? You search for a few keywords. You limit your search by putting “site: Reddit.com.” And I would argue that, as good as Reddit can be for product reviews, it’s even better for expert advice because there are so many of these tiny niche subreddits about everything. So, take succulents, for instance. There’s a huge gardening subreddit, a smaller indoor gardening one, and an even smaller one that’s just for succulents. And for some types of succulents, they even have their own whole community–which to me is crazy but kind of beautiful, too. 

Roman Mars [00:31:58] Yeah. So, this all makes sense to me because you’re really relying on human knowledge, and voting, and all the types of things that we’ve counted on since Web 2.0 came about. But my question is, like: you know, you can type a search into search bar on Reddit. So, why are you using Google to search Reddit? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:17] That’s a great question, too. I mean, I’ve tried that. Believe me, I’ve tried that a lot of times. But Reddit’s built-in search is, in my opinion, a mess. And it does offer various ways to search, so it kind of looks sophisticated. Like, you can search within a single subreddit, and you can sort results by, you know, the age of the post or the vote count on it. But ultimately, search ability has never really been the company’s focus and it shows when you actually try to search the site. So, by using Google, you’re combining this really powerful search engine with this really remarkable wealth of personal knowledge, right? You’re cutting out all the bad results of, like, random review websites, and you’re just going straight to the site that often has good information. And of course, it won’t work for everything–but it’s a starting point for so many of my searches these days. And I should point out though that the sort of third major category of search is something that Google actually does do very well, and that’s called a “navigational search.” Basically, if you know what you’re looking for–if you’re looking for a particular website or a person–plugging that into Google is often a great way to find them, right? 

Roman Mars [00:33:26] Yeah. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:27] I mean, this is what we all do. But for these informational and transactional queries, I do suggest starting with Google plus Reddit and then just going from there. 

Roman Mars [00:33:36] Wow. This is great; this is, like, real news you can use stuff right here. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:41] Yeah. 

Roman Mars [00:33:42] So, I’m going to give the hybrid search a shot, and I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:45] Excellent. Excellent. Yeah. I mean, yeah, rarely are we so practical in our episodes. But, yeah, hopefully people find this useful. I should mention one other thing before we go, and that’s that for some people, Reddit will set off a bit of a red flag because the site as a whole is a very mixed bag. It’s sort of like its own version of the World Wide Web with warts and all. So, for people who have a negative association with Reddit going in, I hear you and you’re right. There is a lot of toxicity on that website. But if you search hard enough and avoid the bad neighborhoods, you can find great little communities, too. 

Roman Mars [00:34:26] Duly noted. I have noticed the warts. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:34:28] Yes. 

Roman Mars [00:34:29] But I also have noticed really nice communities.  

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:34:33] Yeah. Our subreddit is beautiful, I must say. 

Roman Mars [00:34:35] Exactly. I like to hang out in the Blankies subreddit. And I also just think the FrontPage is really good. And people are funny; you’ll find a lot of good stuff on there, too. But it’s duly noted–like, just be careful out there, have your wits about you, and try to find the best information possible. All right. Well, thank you so much, Kurt. This is great. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:34:57] Yeah. Any time, Roman. 

Roman Mars [00:35:06] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Lasha Madan, edited by Kelly Prime and Executive Produced by Delaney Hall. Original Music by Swan Real. Sound Mix by Ameeta Ganatra. Fact-checking by Liz Boyd. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Jayson De Leon, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Emmett Fitzgerald, Martín Gonzalez, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Adam Rogers for being Adam Rogers, and a warm welcome this week to our fall intern Olivia Green. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building in beautiful uptown Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love, as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.

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Producer Lasha Madan spoke with writer Adam Rogers. Coda on hacking search with Kurt Kohlstedt.

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