BBC Search on BBC News

 by Martin Belam, 10 January 2005

BBC News Online today ran an article about the strange searches that we get at the BBC, particularly focussing on the query "How to fold a serviette like an elf's boot?" which inspired the promo for the article:

BBC News promo for an article about BBC Search

I was wryly amused by the fact that the BBC's commitment to balance and fairness meant that the related internet links on the article were to Google and Ask Jeeves - although it did show up one of the anomolies of our URL structure. BBC News give the address of the BBC's search service as, but this of course simply re-directs the user to the homepage, where the default search is currently set for BBC site search, and not the web search that the article itself has been talking about.

Related BBC and Internet links panel from the BBC News article about BBC Search

We look specifically at this type of search query, as we generate a report that is run twice daily, parsing the search logs for two specific types of entry. One is the long query, which pulls out all the searches where people have entered more than nine-or-so words as search terms, and the other does a very crude pattern match for query strings which have started with phrases like "how do", "how can", "what is", "why does" etc.

We run the reports twice a day, timed with the intention that there would always be something light-hearted or entertaining to look at when you arrived in the office in the morning, or just as you left at night.

If you have ever seen me speak, it has been a habit of mine for some time to finish a presentation with a slide consisting of odd or amusing search queries derived from these reports. It performs a double function. Firstly it re-emphasises the human nature of the BBC's users, and the fact that it easy as internet professionals, academic researchers, and computer geeks, to take it for granted that everybody knows how to use a search engine. Secondly, whilst the audience are (hopefully) chuckling it gives me a chance to get a glass of water before the Q&A session that usually follows a talk. My favourites from the slide - which I guess I'll have to re-do now - are:

  • who is sponsored in sport?
  • what was on?
  • what is the fire strike about?
  • what is songs of praise about?
  • how do i find out what happened in my house?
  • what do you know?
  • how do i talk to the actors of eastenders on the computer with out the internet?
  • who is their god?
  • when will it snow this year?
  • how does the drier work in paint?
  • what does the queen do?
  • who are you to judge us?
  • how do you reconfigure certain settings on a computer?
  • what is the david beckham rumour?
  • how does the bbc use computers?
  • what will happen with iraq?
  • how does the british democratic process work?
  • what are the signs that a guy likes you?
  • how do internet search engines optimize results?

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