People expect a search engine to think for them, says Dušek
People expect a search engine to respond to more and more complex queries, as well as to very short ones. They might want to know the date of birth of Charles IV, but they only type in his name and expect the computer to understand.
Imagining the internet without a search engine is just as hard as imagining life without the internet. And search engine development is something that Roman Dušek, a graduate from the MU Faculty of Informatics, does at Seznam.cz, the most popular Czech web search engine. In a few sentences, he can explain how sophisticated this system is and everything that his company knows about the users of their tool.
How can you make search engines better today?
It seems to me that they already work well; the problem is rather that people don’t know how to ask questions. There is still room for improvement. The main issue is that users’ expectations keep rising and people expect search engines to respond to more and more complex queries. The trend is for users to enter longer and more sophisticated queries as well as very short ones, such as simply the name of an entity. They might want to know the date of birth of Charles IV, but they only type in his name and expect the computer to understand – to think for them.
What does that mean from an IT perspective?
We have to analyse thoroughly what users currently need. That’s the starting point for any changes.
What are the most popular searches?
The most frequent searches are the names of web portals or websites – YouTube as well as the popular shopping websites Alza, Mall, and Aukro are all in the top hundred. Users want to go to a specific site and so they enter the name into the search engine. The difference between a search engine and a browser address bar is becoming increasingly fuzzy, as users want to type queries and URLs in one place. However, these searches are actually the minority in the overall volume. The most frequent searches are the unique ones, often input only once or twice in a particular day. This might be a product code or a line from a song when somebody wants to find its name.
Can you see current events in the statistics, too?
Very much! Something happens and it immediately appears in the searches. There is a strong link between TV shows and the internet, too. When there is a talk show on with a new and interesting person, their name pops up in searches the moment they appear on the TV screen. It’s also a reflection of user behaviour – people are watching TV and at the same time holding a phone or a tablet where they look up the people they see on the TV. However, these searches aren’t that big in the overall volume. Most searches represent people’s life situations. The proportion of queries that reflect current trends is no higher than 1%, while 99% are everyday queries looking for companies, products, and so on.
Can you also see what usually gets misspelt?
The biggest problem is a brand or product name in a foreign language; people just don’t know how to spell it correctly. This is where the search machine added value steps in – the user writes the word the way it’s pronounced and expects the search engine to find the correct answer. If we provided them exactly with what they asked for, they wouldn’t be very happy. Raiffeisenbank is a good example. If you asked passers-by in the street how to spell the name of this bank, you would get hundreds of variations, and to that, you have to add the completely nonsensical ones caused by typos, especially when users are typing on their phones.
The experience the graduates gained in their own or university projects is very important.
How does the switch to mobile devices affect you?
Typing on a mobile phone is more difficult than on a keyboard, which results in more typos and shorter queries. It’s almost that the user types in “hockey” and expects to see the results of the current Czech Extraliga round.
Are mobile devices a challenge for you?
I think they are a challenge for all internet services. A mobile phone only has a very limited space to display content and ads. All services have to deal with this and it often means having to come up with a completely new concept. The appearance of our search machine is adapted so that it’s easy to use on mobile phones and tablets. However, the content is the same for desktops, mobiles, and tablets alike.
When you say “we”, how many people is that in Seznam?
The search engine team currently has a little over 130 people including product managers, researchers, developers, and admins – it’s a very wide variety of professions. And I have to add that a number of people who work for us right now are graduates from the MU Faculty of Informatics. I think it's mostly because the faculty takes a more academic and scientific approach to information science.
Is the graduate’s alma mater a consideration in the hiring process, then?
The university our applicants studied at – or whether they have a university degree at all – is certainly not a key factor. Graduates from the same school can differ very much. I’m often surprised by the differences there are in their mindsets and how they present their skills. What we are looking for is the way the graduates think, whether they can learn new things, work with others, analyse a specific situation and come to the correct conclusions. And the experience the graduates gained in their own or university projects is also very important.
And how did you join the company?
I answered an ad. I’ve been in Seznam for six years. I worked as a product manager in the search team for the first five years and I have been the leader for the last year. The department keeps growing; our team grew by about 50% last year in all professions. We are still looking for new people, such as programmers, researchers, scrum masters, and product managers.
Can you offer any tips for graduates that would give them the edge in the hiring process?
It’s definitely important to have some experience, whether in university projects or from elsewhere, so that they can show they have already done something. They should be able to explain clearly what project they worked on, what was their role in it, and what was their specific task or contribution to the project. Another thing that counts is if they are passionate about a certain topic or something specific they would like to do. It is also not uncommon that the graduates who apply for work have a formal education and some work experience, but what they lack is the ability to work in a team, which is increasingly important these days.
And how should graduates choose where to work?
The reasons why people decide on a particular company differ. There are those who want to work with specific technologies – this is where our company can offer a lot of variety and we keep testing new ones, especially in big data and machine learning. We are also one of the very few companies in the Czech Republic that analyse and process huge amounts of data. Some people want to work on a specific service of Seznam.cz, such as the search engine or maps, while others are attracted by our brand. It’s a personal decision about what matters to you.