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Two Arguments for the IF-Search Technique


This document outlines two intuitive arguments for the IF-search technique. The first deals with people’s normal search behaviors. The second deals with discoverability and e-commerce issues.

The Search for Sneakers

Have you ever gone shopping for a pair of shoes? I would like to present a brief narrative illustrating Johnny’s search for a pair of sneakers, and then contrast that approach with a less-familiar one.

Johnny wants to buy some sneakers, so he goes to a local mall. Once inside the mall, Johnny stops at the information booth to ask if there are any sporting goods stores in the mall. He receives directions to three shops and after a little thought starts off toward the second. Upon arriving at the store, Johnny enters and asks where he can find men’s basketball shoes. He is directed to the back of the store. There Johnny examines the sneakers on display until he finds a pair he thinks he likes. He asks the employee if he can try them on in a size 11. A few minutes later Johnny is unashamedly skipping, jumping, and running through the store. Finally, Johnny purchases the sneakers.

Contrast this method of shopping, which I assume will be at least mildly familiar to many of you, with the following approach:

Johnny wants to buy some sneakers, so he goes to a local mall. Once inside the mall, Johnny stops at the information booth and says, "I would like a pair of white and blue, low top Nike basketball shoes in a size 11, please." The worker in the information produces the shoes and Johnny purchases them.

This last search is conceptually similar to the ones we ask people to perform everyday – come to one point, load all your boolean operators and carefully selected keywords into one phrase, and receive your answer. Well, its no wonder normal people have a difficult time searching the web or other information stores. Who searches for anything this way in real life?

Johnny’s first search, which I believe more closely parallels people’s normal search behavior, is similar to the IF-search (Wiley, 1999), because he refines the search little by little over time. First he finds the information booth, then the sporting goods store, then the shoe section, then the men’s basketball shoes section, then the specific pair of shoes that meets his needs.

It should be evident that Johnny’s shoe search is a combination of two techniques: a keyword search (‘where are the sporting goods stores?’) followed by an iterative refining procedure similar to browsing. The IF-search is a combination keyword search - browsing approach.

If-searches and E-commerce

There are a number of things that will become clear to the e-commerce-minded content publisher as they review the traditional and the IF-search methods.

The traditional search method requires the consumer to know before hand exactly what they want (‘a pair of white and blue low top Nike basketball shoes in a size 11’). The IF-search method provides a way for the consumer to browse related content (the way a section of a store would be browsed), discovering both
  1. other content that may suit their purposes better than (or less expensively than) that for which they were initially looking (‘these Puma’s are great, and cost less too!’),
  2. complimentary and/or accessorizing content which the consumer would never have sought out individually but may now purchase for use with the first content (socks, shoe laces, etc.),
  3. etc.
In short, almost every sales technique (up-selling, catering to impulse-buyers, etc.) employed in physical stores could be employed in an IF-search results section. None of these would really be possible under the traditional search model.


Although the ideas in this document still need to be expanded, this quick look should provide enough food for thought. I have argued that the IF-search technique is superior to the traditional non-refining, keyword-only model in that it (1) is more similar to the way people are used to searching for goods, and (2) provides better support for e-commerce than the traditional search model.

Your cheers and criticisms are welcome.
David Wiley <>
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Last modified 2004-06-14 10:08 PM