Published in Scientific American, March 1997.


Interfaces for
Searching the Web

The rapid growth of the World Wide Web
is outpacing current attempts to search and organize it.
New user interfaces may offer a better approach

by Marti A. Hearst

The (Slow) Speed of Thought
Organizing Search Results


How does anyone find anything among the millions of pages linked together in unpredictable tangles on the World Wide Web? Retrieving certain kinds of popular and crisply defined information, such as telephone numbers and stock prices, is not hard; many Web sites offer these services. What makes the Internet so exciting is its potential to transcend geography to bring information on myriad topics directly to the desktop. Yet without any consistent organization, cyberspace is growing increasingly muddled. Using the tools now available for searching the Web to locate the document in Oregon, the catalogue in Britain or the image in Japan that is most relevant for your purposes can be slow and frustrating.

More sophisticated algorithms for ranking the relevance of search results may help, but the answer is more likely to arrive in the form of new user interfaces. Today software designed to analyze text and to manipulate large hierarchies of data can provide better ways to look at the contents of the Internet or other large text collections. True, the page metaphor used by most Web sites is familiar and simple. From the perspective of user interface design, however, the page is unnecessarily restrictive. In the future, it will be superseded by more powerful alternatives that allow users to see information on the Web from several perspectives simultaneously.

Consider Aunt Alice in Arizona, who connects to the Net to find out what kind of edible bulbs, such as garlic or onions, she can plant in her garden this autumn. Somewhere in the vast panorama of the Web lie answers to her question. But how to find them?

Alice currently has several options, none of them particularly helpful. She can ask friends for recommended Web sites. Or she can turn to Web indexes, of which there are at present two kinds: manually constructed tables of contents that list Web sites by category and search engines that can rapidly scan an index of Web pages for certain key words.

Using dozens of employees who assign category labels to hundreds of Web sites a day, Yahoo compiles the best-known table of contents. To use Yahoo, one chooses from a menu [see illustration at far left] the category that seems most promising, then views either a more specialized submenu or a list of sites that Yahoo technicians thought belonged in that section. The interface can be awkward, however. The categories are not always mutually exclusive: Should Alice choose "Recreation," "Regional" or "Environment"? Whatever she selects, the previous menu will vanish from view, forcing her either to make a mental note of all the alternative paths she could have taken or to retrace her steps methodically and reread each menu. If Alice guesses wrong about which subcategory is most relevant (it is not "Environment"), she has to back up and try again. If the desired information is deep in the hierarchy, or is not available at all, this process can be time-consuming and aggravating.

The (Slow) Speed of Thought

Research in the field of information visualization during the past decade has produced several useful techniques for transforming abstract data sets, such as Yahoo's categorized list, into displays that can be explored more intuitively. One strategy is to shift the user's mental load from slower, thought-intensive processes such as reading to faster, perceptual processes such as pattern recognition. It is easier, for example, to compare bars in a graph than numbers in a list. Color is very useful for helping people quickly select one particular word or object from a sea of others.

Another strategy is to exploit the illusion of depth that is possible on a computer screen if one departs from the page model. When three-dimensional displays are animated, the perceptual clues offered by perspective, occlusion and shadows can help clarify relations among large groups of objects that would simply clutter a flat page. Items of greater interest can be moved to the foreground, pushing less interesting objects toward the rear or the periphery. In this way, the display can help the user preserve a sense of context.

Such awareness of one's virtual surroundings can make information access a more exploratory process. Users may find partial results that they would like to reuse later, hit on better ways to express their queries, go down paths they didn't think relevant at first--perhaps even think about their topic from a whole new perspective. Aunt Alice could accomplish a lot of this by jotting down notes as she pokes around Yahoo, but a prototype interface developed by my colleagues at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center aims to make such sense-making activities more efficient.

Called the Information Visualizer, the software draws an animated 3-D tree that links each category with all its subcategories. If Alice searches the Yahoo tree for "garden," all six areas of Yahoo in which "garden" or "gardening" is a subcategory will light up. She can then "spin" each of these categories to the front to explore where it leads. When one path hits a dead end, the roads not taken are just a click away.

When Alice finds useful documents, this interface allows her to store them, along with the search terms that took her to them, in a virtual book. She can place the book on a virtual bookshelf where it is readily visible and clearly labeled. Next weekend, Alice can pick up where she left off by reopening her book, tearing out a page and using it to resubmit her query.

Our interface does not offer much help to the Sisyphean attempt to organize the contents of the entire Web. Because new sites appear on the Web far faster than they can be indexed by hand, the fraction listed by Yahoo (or any other service) is shrinking rapidly. And sites, such as Time magazine's, that contain articles on many topics often appear under only a few of the many relevant categories.

Search engines such as Excite and AltaVista are considerably more comprehensive--but this is their downfall. Poor Aunt Alice, entering the string of key words "garlic onion autumn fall garden grow" into Excite will, as of this writing, retrieve 583,430 Web pages, which (at two minutes per page) would take more than two years to browse through nonstop. Long lists littered with unwanted, irrelevant material are an unavoidable result of any search that strives to retrieve all relevant documents; conversely, a more discriminating search will almost certainly exclude many useful pages.

The short, necessarily vague queries that most Internet search services encourage with their cramped entry forms exacerbate this problem. One way to help users describe what they want more precisely is to let them use logical operators such as AND, OR and NOT to specify which words must (or must not) be present in retrieved pages. But many users find such Boolean notation intimidating, confusing or simply unhelpful. And even experts' queries are only as good as the terms they choose.

When thousands of documents match a query, giving more weight to those containing more search terms or uncommon key words (which tend to be more important) still does not guarantee that the most relevant pages will appear near the top of the list. Consequently, the user of a search engine often has no choice but to sift through the retrieved entries one by one.

Organizing Search Results

A better solution is to design user interfaces that impose some order on the vast pools of information generated by Web searches. Algorithms exist that can automatically group pages into certain categories, as Yahoo technicians do. But that approach does not address the fact that most texts cannot be shoehorned into just one category. Real objects can often be assigned a single place in a taxonomy (an onion is a kind of vegetable), but it is a rare Web page indeed that is only about onions. Instead a typical text might discuss produce distributors, or soup recipes, or a debate over planting imported versus indigenous vegetables. The tendency in building hierarchies is to create ever more specific categories to handle such cases ("onion distributors," for example, or "soup recipes with onion," or "agricultural debates about onions," and so on). A more manageable solution is to describe documents by whole sets of categories that apply to them, along with another set of attributes (such as source, date, genre and author). Researchers in Stanford University's digital library project are developing an interface called SenseMaker along these lines.

At Xerox PARC, we have developed an alternative scheme for grouping the list of pages retrieved by a search engine. Called Scatter/Gather, the technique creates a table of contents that changes along with a user's growing understanding of what kind of documents are available and which are most relevant.

Imagine that Aunt Alice runs her search using Excite and retrieves the first 500 Web pages it suggests. The Scatter/Gather system can then analyze those pages and divide them into groups based on their similarity to one another [see upper illustration on next page]. Alice can rapidly scan each cluster and select those groups that appear interesting.

Although evaluation of user behavior is an inexact process that is difficult to evaluate, preliminary experiments suggest that clustering often helps users zero in on documents of interest. Once Alice has decided, for example, that she is particularly keen on the cluster of 293 texts summarized by "bulb," "soil" and "gardener," she can run them through Scatter/Gather once again, rescattering them into a new set of more specific clusters. Within several iterations, she can whittle 500 mostly irrelevant pages down to a few dozen useful ones.

By itself, document grouping does not solve another common problem with Web-based search engines such as Excite: ithe mystery of why they list the documents they do. But if the entry form encourages users to break up their query into several groups of related key words, then a graphical interface can indicate which search topics occurred where in the retrieved documents. If hits on all topics overlap within a single passage, the document is more likely to be relevant, so the program ranks it higher. Alice might have a hard time spelling out in advance which topics must occur in the document or how close together they must lie. But she is likely to recognize what she wants when she sees it and to be able to fine-tune her query in response. More important, the technique, which I call TileBars, can help users decide which documents to view and can speed them directly to the most relevant passages.

The potential for innovative user interfaces and text analysis techniques has only begun to be tapped. Other techniques that combine statistical methods with rules of thumb can automatically summarize documents and place them within an existing category system. They can suggest synonyms for query words and answer simple questions. None of these advanced capabilities has yet been integrated into Web search engines, but they will be. In the future, user interfaces may well evolve even beyond two- and three-dimensional displays, drawing on such other senses as hearing to help Aunt Alices everywhere find their bearings and explore new vistas on the information frontier.

Further Reading

Rich Interaction in the Digital Library. Ramana Rao, Jan O. Pedersen, Marti A. Hearst and Jock D. Mackinlay et al. in Communications of the ACM, Vol. 38, No. 4, pages 29-39; April 1995.

The WebBook and the Web Forager: An Information Workspace for the World-Wide Web. Stuart K. Card, George G. Robertson and William York in Proceedings of the ACM/SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Vancouver, April 1996. Available on the World Wide Web

Selected publications by Marti Hearst

"The WebBook and the Web Forager: An Information Workspace for the World-Wide Web." Stuart K. Card, George G. Robertson and William York in Proceedings of the ACM/SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Vancouver, April 1996.

"Reexamining the Cluster Hypothesis: Scatter/Gather on Retrieval Results." Marti A. Hearst and Jan O. Pedersen in Proceedings of the 19th Annual International ACM/SIGIR Conference, Zurich, August 1996.

"SenseMaker: An Information-Exploration Interface Supporting the Contextual Evolution of a User's Interests." Michelle Q. Wang Baldonado and Terry Winograd in Proceedings of the ACM/SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Altanta, 1997 (in press).

Research in Support of Digital Libraries at Xerox PARC

The Author

MARTI A. HEARST has been a member of the research staff at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center since 1994. She received her B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley. Hearst's Ph.D. dissertation, which she completed in 1994, examined context and structure in text documents and graphical interfaces for information access.