Philtrum Filtering

In last Friday’s article (
Deckchair of Death
) I used the word Filtrum (or Philtrum it depends on your personal spelling preference) which is a pretty interesting word.

The Philtrum is the small groove that sits underneath your nose. And it’s interesting mainly because of what it means for search on the web*.

During perhaps 2000 / 2001 there was an advert made by British Telecom that was aimed at promoting the internet. In the advert a young girl walked into the center of the coliseum and was faced with millions of different people sitting there looking at her. The girl then piped up with a question which was, “What do you call the thing between your nose and your mouth”. Everyone in the coliseum goes quiet and then a guy stands up (wearing a lab coat) and says “It’s called a Philtrum”. And then the advert went on to extol the value of the internet as the place where you can find the answer to anything.

The interesting thing about that advert to me at the time was the at that precise moment there wasn’t a way to find the answer to that question on the internet. In fact it’s still the pretty much the case now. One of the hardest things to find information about on the internet is the collective group of “thing’s you don’t know the right name for”. It used to be joined by “things you don’t know how to spell” but Google solved that one so well that I know people who use Google as a spellchecker.

The big problem is that with this and many other things if you don’t know the exact right question then you won’t find the answer. Basically your only chance is if there happens to be an article which is titled with the question.

So say we actually plug “What do you call the thing between your nose and your mouth” with or without quotes into the major search engines. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft Live all say no-way to it, with quotes they all say “no pages found” and without quotes they return answers which are equally useless. However ask does have the answer to the question the only article it returns whether you’ve put the question in quotes or not is the exact right one and bizarrely is an article about how best to search for an answer to the question. Actually to be fair to Yahoo the answer is the third one in the list if you don’t include quotes but that may just be because the page is actually on Yahoo!

My main point is that while they’ve got better in many ways no search engine other than ask have really dealt with this problem properly. Ask, unfortunately, still doesn’t return for me the best results in a normal search. So I wonder if the answer really is to have to recognise this is a special kind of search and return a different kind of page? I don’t know, but the problem remains as difficult as it once was – at least it does for Google.

*There’s another interesting thing too. According to Jewish tradition, in the womb every baby is taught all of the wisdom of the world by an angel, and then just before the baby is born the angel touches the baby on the upper lip (to shh the baby) which makes it forget everything it has been taught. Sadly the Talmud is silent on why this occurs. Maybe because it is bonkers.

One thought on “Philtrum Filtering

  1. Nick Ollivère says:

    I think it must be impossible to ever devise a search engine for things you don’t know the name of. The same way that if you’re looking for ‘phobia’ in the dictionary amongst the ‘f’ section, you’ll never find it. Some things, it seems, can’t be solved. You could set up a website teaching people how to ask the right questions to search engines, or you could set up a website of every single bit of bizarre information people need to know, and index it thoroughly. Still, you might miss something… If you there’s something you don’t know, and you don’t know how to phrase the right question about it, there is the possibility that you’ll never know the answer, which is quite scary, and which leads me on to…Free will, which you posted about earlier. I think the most interesting angle on this is the psychological one: if I buy myself a new set of curtains in a shop how do I know that it was my own, totally free, decision that chose them? It could also have been the weight of everything I have experienced, my culture and upbringing, and everyone in history affecting that, leading me to the choice. Accordingly, I did not choose them for myself at all.

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