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One key may be simply providing people the right guidance on refining their searches. He notes that there are many repetitive patterns in people’s searches that might give Google’s system clues about what stage people have reached in a search project.

However, the team isn’t sure how much of this support should come automatically. “It’s better to underpromise and overdeliver,” says Wiley.

Russell points to tools that can already help savvy users refine a task. For example, he says, users who allow Google to save their search histories can mine that information to review material they’ve seen in the past. Google also offers search tools such as views of related searches, which Russell says can help break blocks for those who are stuck. He runs a site called A Google A Day that uses puzzles to teach people more sophisticated approaches to search.

One way to improve the search experience might be to change the way the results page looks in a way that would help users discover more possible approaches, says Wiley.

Observing users also gives Google’s engineers and designers clues for tricks that could help others. For example, many people go to YouTube to find medical information, Russell says. While that may seem counterintuitive, the team discovered that people wanted to see examples of how conditions progress, how surgical procedures work, or how to execute home treatments and physical therapy exercises properly.

The team sometimes makes slight alterations to search results to emphasize approaches that may not occur to everyone. For example, they recently adjusted results for music searches to make it easier for users to find sites where they can listen to a requested song.

Russell stresses that no matter how intelligent the interface, it will never substitute for a skilled user. “There’s a deep structure to these things, and you have to know what resources are possible,” he says. “The technology is constantly changing, and the user interface is constantly changing. One of the big takeaways is you’ve got to pay attention.” 

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