Second Life is an interesting, challenging, unique environment. At least, that’s what I try and tell my friends, game-devs and some journalists I know. But what do they actually see in-world? Porn, shops, fetishists and casinos. Where’s all the potential of an alternate universe? Where’s the joy of creative human creativity unleashed and without limits? And I’m not talking collars, chains and whips!
Frankly, I find the casinos, clubs and porn of Second Life tedious and dull and I know there’s better content out there, if only I could find it! But the simple fact is that finding anything interesting, stimulating or challenging in Second Life is very, very hard. Hell, just searching for something ‘funny’ can produce some fairly odd results. Click the picture to the left to see an example from Second Life of the search results for the ‘funny’ search. Note, ‘mature content’ is not ticked! I have had to censor the picture to make it moderately safe for work!
Now, I know there’s great content in Second Life, the kind that inspires, makes you laugh, smile, or makes you admire the creator’s genius, I’ve enjoyed it over the years (mostly through stumbling across it by accident) but where is it? The search function in Second Life is so pointless as to be almost a waste of time, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. I’ve scattered some pictures through the post to show just how largely pointless using search is in SL unless you know exactly the person or property you’re looking for.
In the past I’ve blogged about searching in Second Life and provided tips and further ideas for making sure your land could be found by users, and while these tips are still valid and help land get found, the fundamental problem of search in Second Life, that it has become spammed and pointless, has not been addressed. The core of the problem stems from the fact that search results are based on popularity only, not on the quality of the result or the relation between results, something all modern search engines try to capture. Let me explain…
Do you remember the Internet before search engines? Before Yahoo and AltaVista and Google? The only way to find good content was to follow the bookmarks of other people and every web site had a page of dozens of links to the author’s favourite content. It was the only way you could get around, and it was painful. When searching for content in Second Life you are far more likely to find an interesting place to visit from someone’s personal recommendations in their profile (see the example to the left) than you are by fiddling with search. In this sense, Second Life, a child of the modern web, is still stuck in search and browsing habits of the 1990s.
The problem is how search works in SL. Second Life search works through simply matching key words in a property’s description to your search results and then ranking the results by the popularity of the land, how many bodies have been idling there over time. That’s why the many sample search results in this post show property descriptions which are just strings of hot keywords and the properties tend to be clubs and casinos where users are often paid to hang around. The land owners know how important it is to get traffic, and they ensure they get traffic by loading up their property descriptions with words they think their customers are likely to search for and tipping their visitors.
Internet searching used to be dominated by sites deploying keyword strategies like this, but very quickly the search engine companies learned that they were being gamed by eCommerce companies who had realised that search results led to page views, and page views led to dollars. Many eCommerce companies started loading their pages with keywords to try and generate more traffic. It wasn’t uncommon to see hidden text stuffed full of random ‘hot’ words, and title bars contained long strings of enticing phrases.
Search engine users trying to do any form of simple search found themselves spammed with nothing but porn sites whose owners had loaded the most popular terms of the day into their site’s code. Searching for a celebrity of the day or a hot news item was an exercise in frustration as you dodged the kind of sites you wouldn’t want your Mum to see you browsing. For a period this severely curtailed the usefulness of search engines and a solution had to be found lest people think the internet was nothing but porn, casinos and dodgy eCommerce sites.
The solutions search engines developed were complex, with Google coming to the table first with the PageRank mechanism whereby a site would appear higher in the rankings if it was linked from other sites. Especially if those other sites were also well linked and well ranked themselves. Sites trying to game Google were penalised PageRank. Overnight web search was changed and while there are issues with PageRank, it tends to produce far better results than the older approaches. Of course, there were other tweaks and mechanisms to improve results for users that are not worth covering here. The point is that Google focused on delivering to users search results that meant something, that answered the users needs.
So why haven’t Linden Labs learned the same lessons and applied them to Second Life? I don’t know, but I know that to the casual observer the inability to find great content is killing the interesting, creative and unique stuff that does appear in Second Life. Not only do they not get support, but their lack of profile makes Second Life look like a phenomenally shallow experience. How will the cool robot toys of Deevyde Maelstrom, or the chilling schizophrenia experiment be found by brave Second Life explorers when search results produce the most banal, popular and base Second Life content? It’s as if you opened up the TV Guide and ads for American Idol and Oprah were on every single page. No “The Office”, no “Heroes”, no BBC America, nothing interesting or fresh.
What is the solution to the inability to find great stuff in Second Life? Well, a few users are already trying to come up with their own attempts to solve the problem. The first that springs to mind is SLateIt, which allows users wearing a hud to click a button to vote to SLate or Hate an object they are looking at. It’s essentially Digg for Second Life, but it looks like it’s not widely used so far, and it works primarily with items, not a whole build. Great start though!
The next clever solution is Slicr, which allows users to mark locations with keyword tags, and again, a special hud is involved. The tags are searchable and it’s easy to find a list of tagged properties that might be interesting. The service works much the same as tagging in flickr does, and flickr is a great tool to emulate. The only downside to Slicr is is that, again, it’s not widely used.
In an ideal world Linden Labs would look at what the users are coming up with and simply buy out those projects and produce something built into the client available to all users. Here’s a few ideas I think they should look at:
- Consider creating a directory service like Yahoo Directory where users submit their properties to an appropriate category. Users would then be able to navigate through the directory to the sort of content they were interested in and know it had been sanity checked by a human and was a valid entry. That’s the downside of a directory service, it does require a human to (at least once) confirm the listing. Directories are old news on the web, but they work. Check the listing in the Second Life section of the Yahoo directory, it’s a great sample of some of the more useful Second Life web sites.
- Blend the best of the recommendation services that exist already, add in a healthy dose of Digg-style networked recommendations and comment, and then build it all into an interface in the client. Let everyone see what’s cool in a variety of categories, let people discuss the builds, let the hot lists change quickly over time so what’s hot and what’s not is always shifting and there’s always new content to explore.
- Data mine player’s “picks” tab in the users profile to produce a Second Life version of PageRank to influence search results. Alternately, slice and dice the picks page into something players can search and monitor. Let users see what’s the most popular pick and read the user-written descriptions of why. Players will only bookmark a site to their picks tab if they are really keen on it so there’s merit in letting others see what their peers think is cool. One potential problem is that people might simply pick a property because they are paid to do so, but that issue could be reduced by weighting the picks of experienced members over those of newbies and other appropriate weighting measures.
I believe it’s vital that Linden Labs consider the search problem quickly. Second Life is supposed to be techy, innovative and cool, but people will only drink the cool-aid for so long before they actually wander around in game and see nothing but bondage, sex skyboxes, shopping, casinos and clubs and start to think Second Life hype is nothing but spin.
Help us get to the great content, Linden Labs, and we’ll help you by staying in-game, engaged and enthusiastic.
More post to come on events,
supporting content and Second Life
Thanks to Tedd Tigereye for help with images