People are fond of saying how far we still have to go in improving Internet search. And it's not just Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Last week it was...

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People are fond of saying how far we still have to go in improving Internet search.

And it’s not just Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Last week it was Marissa Mayer, Google‘s vice president of search products, but it sounded as if she was saying there’s not that much further to go.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times on Google’s 10th anniversary, Mayer said, “Search is an unsolved problem. We have a good 90 to 95 percent of the solution, but there is a lot to go in the remaining 10 percent.”

Wait, did she just say it’s 90 to 95 percent solved?

After her comment raised eyebrows in the tech world, Mayer clarified what she meant in a blog post that reminded us of something Yogi Berra might have said, if he were a computer scientist.

“We’re all familiar with 80-20 problems, where the last 20 percent of the solution is 80 percent of the work,” Mayer wrote. “Search is a 90-10 problem. Today, we have a 90 percent solution: I could answer all of my unanswered Saturday questions, not ideally or easily, but I could get it done with today’s search tool. … However, that remaining 10 percent of the problem really represents 90 percent (in fact, more than 90 percent) of the work.”

And, as we well know, half the Internet search game is 90 percent mental. You’ve got to consider that, too.

A finer search

Here’s another piece of evidence to add to the search-is-not-done pile. Seattle’s Boost eLearning, which trains organizations on how to use Google, found that “39 percent of all Google searches fail, leading to more than 40 hours — or one week — of lost productivity per user per year,” the company said.

In an online survey of 378 respondents, respondents said they do about 12 searches a day, about 4.7 of which don’t bring back the goods.

The company had no data on the other major search engines.

Boost eLearning’s solution is to improve the searchers. The company,, offers an online course designed to improve workers’ skills.

In a free online lesson called “Using Wildcards,” Boost eLearning proposes the following hypothetical: [S]uppose George is wondering: “What is the maximum penalty in the state of Colorado for not meeting the hazardous-waste requirements. What word will bring me the best results?”

Google, the lesson explains, “offers a whole-word ‘wild-card’ option. You can use an asterisk (*) to leave one or more blanks inside a phrase, and let Google fill them in for you, adding elasticity and reach to your search.”

To answer George’s question, an efficient search phrase would be: penalty of no more than * dollars’ colorado hazardous waste.

It narrowed the results from 93,000 to 3, compared with a search without an asterisk. Not bad.

What’s in a vision?

Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner told a crowd in Bellevue last week that the company had recently updated its vision, which had been some variation of “a computer on every desk” — the original goal Paul Allen and Bill Gates set out some three decades ago.

The new one is “Create experiences that combine the magic of software with the power of Internet services across a world of devices.”

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is gathered by The Seattle Times technology staff. We can be reached at 206-464-2265 or