Originally published on July 9, 2010 in New Scientist
By Colin Barras
For better or worse, search engines have become the gateway to the web. They help users to find information, advertisers to sell products – they even help hackers in their shady pursuits. So they are also the focus of intense research to variously help or hinder those parties.
The cut-throat competition among search engines has ensured the operators are keenly attuned to keeping their visitors satisfied. But serving up handy links is a tricky business, especially when we searchers often use ambiguous terms.
Demographic data can help, say Ingmar Weber and Carlos Castillo at Yahoo Research Barcelona, Spain. For example, they say that when US women type in the search term "wagner", they are most likely to be thinking of the 19th-century German composer. US men, on the other hand, may well be thinking about the makers of spray painters.
By giving a search engine some basic demographic information, such as age, gender and educational background, it is possible to boost the engine's chances of identifying user intent correctly, say Weber and Castillo. That personal information can be gleaned when people sign up to the other services, such as email, that search engines provide.
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