Make askme more of a reference page? March 22, 2007 1:54 PM   Subscribe

It's pretty difficult to find things in the archives of askme, and I think that probably contributes to the huge number of questions posted each day. [mi]
posted by serazin to Feature Requests at 1:54 PM (44 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

I frequently want to look something up on askme, but I have a hard time culling through posts to find it. For example, the other day I was looking for a thai curry recipe, and using the search field at the top of the page, I got more than 10 pages of hits. Some had recipe's some didn't. What if the front page of ask.metafilter was structured to emphasize previous questions. so it was easier to use askme as a reference?

I think this could also help reduce dupes. Like, probably 100 people have asked some variation of "should I dump my wife/boyfriend/etc" but it's not totally obvious what search terms to use in order to find all those previous posts on that topic.

I know that you can theoretically click on tags or categories to help you find things, but you sort of have to be initiated to figure out how to use this. Even if there was a sentence at the top of the sidebar saying something like: "find answers to your questions on these topics", that could be some help. But still, you could easily miss many previous questions on the topic you're interested in. I know we're all probably loathe to come off like we're self-promoting or all web 2.0 or something, but, there's some sort of balance between that and making the site helpful to people who aren't super tech savvy.

What if you could do searches that prioritized questions or answers marked as favorites or best answers? I can see the danger of giving too much weight to 'favorites', but if I could have narrowed my thai curry search to prioritize recipes that other people liked, that could have helped me. Or what if the top half of the page (or an additional page?) was set up by category with the aim of helping people find previously answered questions?

This might require a certain amount of retroactive tagging or categorizing by (volunteer?) editors, but… it could direct people to the archives rather than encouraging everyone to re-ask the same should I eat this/should I dump him/should I quit school/what's cool in Boston questions.

Make sense to anyone else?
posted by serazin at 1:54 PM on March 22, 2007

Don't bother tagging the "should I dump my wife/boyfriend/etc" posts, cause people are going to keep posting them regardless. As we all know, everyone's a unique snowflake and no other relationship on earth could possibly be like theirs - so what could possibly be learned?
posted by nathancaswell at 2:01 PM on March 22, 2007

You are aware of the fact that the searching is done by Yahoo and Google, right? There is really nothing we can do about the quality of results, ordering, quantity, etc. Except for perhaps matt implementing the fulltext searching himself, but given the glacial speeds Mefi has been slogging to recently, I don't think that's in the cards.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:11 PM on March 22, 2007

That's my point: instead of using a traditional search field, maybe the whole page could be restructured to emphisize the archives by subject.

I know that is a huge project, but I'm just throwing this out as a brainstorm.
posted by serazin at 2:13 PM on March 22, 2007

Actually, I take that back. Matt could make one change that would improve search engine results greatly: for posts before titles were their own field, the HTML title is currently just "Comments on 12345" which is utterly useless. All it would take would be to sample the first sentence or first 'n' words from the question for use in the <title>, and suddenly search results become much easier to parse. It will also help with quality because the search engines give more weight to what's in the title than body text.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:14 PM on March 22, 2007

And what would actually be pretty cool is using the Yahoo and Google search APIs to run the search and then remove all the noise from the results: like category pages, archive months, etc. That way every result shown would be a question, with no extraneous pages to wade through. I've long considered doing this as a quick project, since both search engines expose their APIs for use in exactly this way for free (for a limited number of queries per day/month.)
posted by Rhomboid at 2:16 PM on March 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

It makes sense, but there are limited things we can do, some we've done and some we could do. A few observations.

1. should I dump him/her questions will go on forever because every breakup is different. This is not a problem that can be solved, it is as old as relationships themselves.
2. My guess is you got ten pages of recipes because your search query included every post with the word recipe. Possible? Next question: how do we solve that problem which is a problem of making people better searchers? If I knew that, I'd likely be putting myself out of a librarian job, but it's a good question to try to tackle.
3. Having an example of how to search tags on the search page would probably be good. I htink I can set that up.
4. Having a way to limit by category and tag would definitely be excellent. The categories are now a grouping mechanism but it's hard to use them in searches without some serious google-fu.
5. Unless we go to a homegrown search re-ordering search results isn't super easy, though teaching people how to do advanced searches might be good, maybe an extended FAQ entry.

However, one of the problems is that a lot of people aren't really going to go through the effort. They do moreso on MeFi because if your post is a double it will get removed, but they're less likely to do this on AskMe. On the other hand, I'm inclined to say "where is the problem?" If I had unlimited resources I might want to build some 2.0-ish thing that would say "hey you're asking a question abotu thai food, do any of these thai recipes help you out?" but I know that when I hit that sort of stuff other places and it doesn't work well (vox tech support comes to mind) I get annoyed that it gets in the way of me posting what I want to post.

So, I'm not sure. There are ways to make search better, but there are also ways to make searchers better and figuring out where the responsibility there lies is the big question I think.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:19 PM on March 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the detailed reply. I can see there are range of issues to think about here.

I actually searched for 'thai curry' and got some pages that were like, 'what restaurant can i get a good curry at' etc. The problem wasn't that I couldn't find curry, it was that I found a million disorganized results for curry. Know what I mean? I guess I would have had the same problem if I had used the word recipe.

Your point about effort is exactly what I was thinking: although it is possible to find every question you could possibly ask in the archives (well, almost) most people can't or won't bother. If somehow we could, as you said, limit searches by catagory or tag, that would help.

It's not that it's your responsiblity to make searching easier, but since we probably can't make most people better searchers, it might be worth considering. We seem to have identified people asking many questions each day as a problem - I think a solution to that problem is people looking for their question before they post. And I don't think people will be effective searchers unless it's easy to do.

Maybe some brave soul with a lot of time on her/his hands will want to take it on as a side project.

PS - I have used askme for personal relationship style questions, especially when I first joined. I bet though, if I really could have easily seen 20 previously asked similar questions, I might not have asked them. But maybe not.
posted by serazin at 2:34 PM on March 22, 2007

I hope I don't sound too cynical for saying this, but asking is easier than searching, and more satisfying in a number of ways, so most folks are always going to favor asking over research. Even if you force them to click through an EULA that states they sincerely tried their best to google it first.

Name a list/board/usenet group with a FAQ, and I'll find you posts from oldbies complaining that nobody reads the FAQ. Metafilter is not a unique and special snowflake, in that regard.
posted by ardgedee at 2:38 PM on March 22, 2007

I for one would love to see examples of successful searches for both ask-mefi and the blue as well. A nice explanatory example showing how to get the best possible results back would be fantastic.

I generally feel like I know how to frame my searches elsewhere, but I definitely struggle with my framing here on metafilter more than anywhere else.
posted by smallerdemon at 2:38 PM on March 22, 2007

Two suggestions:

1) The "add a tag" functionality is good for drilling down to a subject, but it is a bit hidden behind those pluses. Maybe someone can suggest a better UI?

2) There is no place to type in a tag name. You can only click on a popular tag which isn't that useful if your desired tag isn't listed. Or change the URL, but that non-discoverable.
posted by smackfu at 2:42 PM on March 22, 2007

Typing in a tag name a la would be a great improvement to the search pages on both site subsections [main and ask] imho.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:43 PM on March 22, 2007

Can we please stop it with the phrase "unique and special snowflake"? In almost every application it sounds unnecessarily nasty (oh, you think you're special, do you, you stupid little git?), not witty, and I think I've seen it about 10 times on this site in the last 24 hours. Ugh.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:46 PM on March 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

I hope I don't sound too cynical for saying this, but asking is easier than searching, and more satisfying in a number of ways, so most folks are always going to favor asking over research.

This is true, and jessamyn references it too. There was a thread a while back where we talked about potential search improvements, and one idea I chewed on was to do an at-post-preview analysis of keywords in the post text and toss up good matches as search results for the poster to look at before actually hitting post. Take the search to the user, and they might look at what's there and reconsider if there really is a good answer.

That'd sort of thing could also work for auto-searching tags, and tag auto-generation for existing posts.

Historical tagging of the whole AskMe backlog would be a huge task—tens of thousands of threads. Not impossible, just a big, big job.

An mefi-tuned in-house search function would be great, but someone has to write it. I've thought about it before, and it's an attractive challenge, but it's work. Yahoo/Google isn't perfect, but it does the job pretty well if you're willing to put out some effort, so reinventing the wheel is kind of hard.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:48 PM on March 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

arguably, people just need some google-fu lessons...

searching for thai curry: 10 pages, ~157 results
searching for "thai curry": 3 pages, ~25 results
searching for "thai curry" recipe: 2 pages, ~20 results
searching for "thai curry" recipe -tagged -restaurant: 1 page, 4 results
posted by juv3nal at 2:58 PM on March 22, 2007 [4 favorites]

Yes, but who is going to organize the lessons?
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:59 PM on March 22, 2007

There is already a reminder on the post a new question page reminding people that there are many tax related questions to be found under tags like "tax" "IRS". Why not add a more general reminder to check out the tags they would add to their own question by going to the 150 tags page and to /tags/[your tag].
posted by gauchodaspampas at 3:20 PM on March 22, 2007

They do moreso on MeFi because if your post is a double it will get removed, but they're less likely to do this on AskMe.

Perhaps Jessamyn hit the nail on the head right there. I know it means a little more policing of AskMe, and would require a little more arbitrary application of the rule, but if you start smacking people's wrists by deleting questions that have been asked before, maybe they'll start teaching themselves to search a little better in the first place, as they (usually) do on MeFi.

I usually try to be pretty good on AskMe about searching questions and making sure I'm not asking one that already has been, and if mine's similar but not the same I'll try to link to the ones I already found in my question, to save other people the work.

I also try to be pretty good about pointing out doubles and flagging them...but I'd wager in general a LOT less AskMe's get deleted for double than MeFi's...
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:28 PM on March 22, 2007

It seems that the problem might be temporarily alleviated by adding an exclusionary option to the search page (basically just another box that takes all terms entered into it and puts the - in front of it.)

Maybe with a little explanation. Something like: If you are getting too many results, try to narrow your search by adding terms to this box which are examples of what you are not looking for.

I'm betting that juv3nal has it right, in that many users are not proficient enough in their search abilities. A quick and dirty technical fix might help them past this limitation.
posted by quin at 3:41 PM on March 22, 2007

Can we please stop it with the phrase "unique and special snowflake"? In almost every application it sounds unnecessarily nasty (oh, you think you're special, do you, you stupid little git?), not witty, and I think I've seen it about 10 times on this site in the last 24 hours. Ugh.

Word boogie. Catch phrases have the shelf life of fresh fish.
posted by Divine_Wino at 3:49 PM on March 22, 2007

I like it cause it's so overused it drives the point home even further. META CLICHE.
posted by nathancaswell at 3:50 PM on March 22, 2007

Part of the problem is that "double" means two different things on MeFi and AskMe.

On MeFi, a double post is just one that repeats a link.

On AskMe, a double post is one that repeats every aspect of an earlier post — every caveat, every restriction, every special circumstance.

Usually that doesn't happen. We might get two posts about timing belt problems, but they'll be on different makes and models. We might get two requests for restaurants in Boise, but one will be from vegans and one will be from seafood lovers. You really need an exact match before you can throw a question away, because a list of seafood restaurants in Boise doesn't help the vegans at all, even if the topic is boringly familiar to the rest of us.

So I have a hunch that deleting true doubles wouldn't actually weed out that many posts. And deleting near misses would make the site much less useful. I'd hate to be that poor vegan who couldn't find a place to eat because someone had asked for a seafood joint last year.

(Actually, I'd hate to be a vegan period. Or in Boise. Both at once would suck beyond belief.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:53 PM on March 22, 2007

smallerdemon: Okay, I just last week was about to ask mefi but successfully searched so I didn't get to ask my own question.

I was looking for somewhere to print a logo on 35 USB flash thumb drives, as cheap as possible. Though typing usb logo into the search field gives me the best results, I think what I did was do logo usb in google, which got me to the USB tag which gave me just a few dozen posts to look through. I guess that's not a total success, except I did find my result.

I think the most important part of this story is not how I found the result but the disappointment I felt in not needing the hive mind. It's fun having a bunch of people from all over the internet trying to help solve your own personal problems. It's fun being the center of attention!

I think deleting dupes is the best way to fight this, since it addresses that problem. There's no real incentive to search, when good search results feel disappointing!
posted by aubilenon at 3:54 PM on March 22, 2007

(Wow. Looking back on the rest of the thread, that was way off-topic. Delete if you want, admins. This special snowflake will gladly save his brilliant insight for when it's actually fucking relevant.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:56 PM on March 22, 2007

Another annoying thing about the AskMe search is that a search for, say, "nyc food" returns such useful results as:

All posts tagged "nyc" and "food"
All posts tagged "food" and "nyc"
Posts tagged with "nyc"    }
Posts tagged with "food"   } Both appear multiple times
All posts tagged with "food" and "newyork"
All posts tagged with "newyork" and "food"

I know that on one level these are useful results, but if I wanted to check out tags I'd look directly at the tag pages. If possible it would be good if the search box just searched for posts, not tag pages. To go along with this, as someone else mentioned, a separate search box just for tags would be good.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:32 PM on March 22, 2007

I would like a little search box that I can type in a list of words and it takes me to the page of "" The tagging can be very useful, we already have people trying to tag documents, and with the right combo of tags you can get pretty close to what you're looking for.

This is pretty easy to do, if I recall--just regex the spaces into +s and dump at the end of the url, call up the url.
posted by that girl at 4:39 PM on March 22, 2007

I hear that I am beating a dead horse with my comment, though. Hem.
posted by that girl at 4:40 PM on March 22, 2007

Oh oh! 'Nother pony! Can we do the rebalancing of tags on the askme popular tag page, as on the MetaFilter popular tag page?

(And why is the title of one Tags | Ask MetaFilter and the other Metafilter | Tags ?)
posted by that girl at 4:42 PM on March 22, 2007

no other relationship on earth could possibly be like theirs - so what could possibly be learned?


*Digs up Tolstoy's corpse, scatters torn first pages of Anna Karenina over said corpse, sets on fire*
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 4:46 PM on March 22, 2007

juv3nal had a good search example.

I am pretty darn good searching google, but I get confused when I go to search here, because I'm not sure if it's searching tags or text and I get a whole lot of hits. I've done a few searches here and still not clear on it. Juv3nal's looks to be a search from google, not from the search box here.

I like searching better than asking, though. Results are way faster and not risky (social ego thing). Yesterday I was going to post a question about selling your home without a real estate agent and I came up with about five previous useful threads. But for many topics, it can be hard to find stuff. There was previously a discussion here about people tagging poorly. I'm not sure if the tagging instructions have been changed, but doesn't that affect searches too?

I wonder if there is some way to make the archive more browsable? Like one tag might logically connect to several other tags. And so on and so on. If one could somehow follow those logical relationships, it might make the archive more appealing?

That said, I found this place when it turned up in a google search of mine.
posted by Listener at 4:51 PM on March 22, 2007

If we take the assumption AskMe is only as good of a reference as you are a searcher, it's just become a glorified encyclopedia. (AskMe != google)

The best things that we find out about AskMe is the difference between 'where' and 'how'. You can perform a search for a 'where' (The example given is:where is the best place for thai curry?) on Citysearch, your local paper, (Village Voice, The Stranger, Willamette Week), or food sites. An individual process of 'how' to do go about doing a certain thing is not always Googlable. First-person accounts of how to get to a certain career, stories about where to go on a trip-that-was-supposed-to-be-a-honeymoon... those are harder to come by. Blogs don't always happen about those things.

Look at it this way: when you search a forum, even if it's a huge forum, the forum doesn't magically channel Wikipedia. It's filtered through personal experience and what you're looking for might not jive with someone else's past needs.
posted by lilithim at 5:07 PM on March 22, 2007

I get confused when I go to search here, because I'm not sure if it's searching tags or text and I get a whole lot of hits

Well, the answer is, you're searching whatever pages yahoo and google have spidered. So, you'll get some questions, some tags, some multi-question archive pages, ... It's really a big "whatever", since all the search does is go straight to yahoo or google.

Juv3nal's looks to be a search from google, not from the search box here

um, hello?
posted by Rhomboid at 5:22 PM on March 22, 2007

And note that for google you can use e.g. [-intitle:"posts tagged with"] in your query to weed out the tag page results.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:24 PM on March 22, 2007

Here's what could happen when a user goes to post a question:

1. User clicks "New Question"
2. The page that comes up demands that the user search yahoo on their question topic.
3. At the bottom of the yahoo page (maybe do it in a frame?) have a link that says "next."
4. The next screen is a google page demanding that the user search on their topic before getting to ask.
5. After searching google, the user may post the question.

Man, I'd never post a question that way.
posted by frecklefaerie at 5:58 PM on March 22, 2007

All the advice on how to search better is helpful, but it doesn't really address the fact that most people don't (and probably won't) work that hard to find what they're looking for.
posted by serazin at 6:36 PM on March 22, 2007

And like I said earlier, I don't think it's anyone's responsibility to make the page more searchable, but I do think that making it more searchable will discourage dupes (and make the page a more accessible reference).
posted by serazin at 6:37 PM on March 22, 2007

serazin, your last 2 comments are a bit contradictory. If people don't search there will be dupes (but as said above, the minutiae of each question kind of make calling it a dupe more than a little difficult). Such dupes will manifest whether or not some major tweaking of the search facilities are done because, as you say, people don't search.

People should search smarter. So I think tweaking of the FAQ would help a minority of people learn better searching techniques. But otherwise, the adding of x words from the post entry to the URL for older posts as mentioned above, if not too difficult a task, is a great idea.
posted by peacay at 7:23 PM on March 22, 2007

Metafilter: please learn how to search. kthxbai.
posted by lilithim at 9:42 PM on March 22, 2007

One thing I hate about searching is that I make a lot of typos. If I change the query in yahoo and then search again, it doesn't restrict the search to metafilter and I get the results from teh whole web. I can manually type in, but that's annoying.
posted by null terminated at 10:10 PM on March 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes, this captures what is confusing about the search results

Hello back (top right) at you, rhomboid. That is not the only way to search here. Look below right on this very page. There are too many different search boxes strewn around the site, none with instructions. Somewhere you can search tags. It's a thicket of uncertainties. There should be one search page with some bit of instructions. Just my humble (actually) opinion.
posted by Listener at 10:59 PM on March 22, 2007

Community tagging! C'mon!
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 4:09 AM on March 23, 2007

If we just deleted everything after it fell off the askme front page rather than storing it in an archive, there would be nothing to search - problem solved.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:27 AM on March 23, 2007

nebulawindphone writes "You really need an exact match before you can throw a question away, because a list of seafood restaurants in Boise doesn't help the vegans at all, even if the topic is boringly familiar to the rest of us."

Even an exact word for word match may not be a true double because of the temporal displacement. The answer to "What is the best vegan restaurant in Boise?" might change every six months.
posted by Mitheral at 8:12 AM on March 23, 2007

Here's a whacky organizational idea based on lilithim's earlier comment:

Have every question categorized as "Who" "What" "When" "Where" "Why" or "How". I'm not sure if I'd allow multiple options. A team of a dozen or two volunteers could go through the archive pretty simply and non-controversially this way. If the search page could then allow searchers to filter out some of those categories it could greatly limit the number of vastly off-topic responses.

Also, I want to second null terminated's problem with refining your search on the Yahoo results page and then not having the secondary search be confined to MetaFilter -- highly annoying.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:50 PM on March 23, 2007

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