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Search Isn’t Broken Because One Guy Had Trouble Using Google

Posted January 1st, 2011 by Andrew Goodman

The narrative is a familiar one. Seemingly intelligent individual hops onto a general-purpose search engine, with a really specific purpose in mind. Gets impatient, has limited background in doing this particular kind of specialized database research, gives up and blames Google or whoever for being spam-ridden and self-interested.

The “search stinks” meme goes all the way back to when the likes of John Dvorak started their articles with that premise over ten years ago. Unfortunately, since search still does stink and I’m still too lazy to really search (like most of the rest of you), when I try to dig up Original Dvorak, all I’m getting is a more recent 2008 piece by him on how the new Cuil search engine stinks. But I digress.

Anyway, Blekko is fine and working on admirable innovation in the search startup space, but this Techcrunch piece by purported academic Vivek Wadhwa does Gooogle – and search, and searchers – a disservice by relying on sweeping generalizations to complain about failed searches, apparently pinpointing the cause of the problem as Google’s bias towards (or inability to filter out) low-quality sites that profit from advertising links.

The example Wadhwa uses is doing reconnaissance on specific individuals in the technology industry. But how would one structure such a search? Are there ways to structure that task so Google, or for that matter Blekko, would perform better?

When I do similar research, I don’t get the same sense of a spammy cesspool that Wadhwa does. Should he elaborate by comparing specifics, like say how the Google “Timeline” feature works vs. Blekko’s /date feature? Should we be probing more about the technology inherent in dating pages as they are published on the Web? Wadhwa unhelpfully tells us that Blekko “analyzes other information embedded in the page’s HTML.” Hate to break it to you, but if Blekko can do it, then Google can easily do it, and probably will.

It’s no secret that Google fails to dazzle on long tail queries. The solution — in part, the innovation Blekko brings to the table — is to sacrifice breadth in favor of imposed structure. By editing out the vast majority of potential publishers of information (and “editing in” curated “thumbs up” high-quality sites), the members of the blekko community may help each other do research with less spam.

For certain, predetermined tasks — assuming a willing army of volunteers to work on the curation database — that’s no doubt going to produce satisfying results. But is this a Google problem? Did Google claim to be solving that problem?

Where we impose structure, we impose significant hurdles in terms of user and community willingness to play along, to say nothing of sacrificing comprehensiveness.

It’s pretty unfair to Google to claim that certain types of unstructured searches were unsatisfying as compared with sites that are more cut out for those tasks — such as LinkedIn! — especially when Wadhwa admitted that LinkedIn proved unsatisfying in itself, despite all the structure it imposes.

There’s a certain Stone Soup quality to the use of a resource like blekko. Confronted with the idea that there are limited resources and a community of volunteer curators, and a need to pick up your searching game to ensure that the tool works to its maximum potential… darned if you won’t pick up your game and make it work by tapping into its full capabilities. Think that might be possible if you just put a bit more elbow grease into Google searches?

The fact that Paul Kedrosky can’t find credible and helpful reviews about dishwashers is a more significant problem. This does point to a troubling fact of life: Google is creating its own way of curating, sorting, and highlighting user-generated content, reviews, local information, etc., and they don’t stack up too well with how many of us are looking to consume review content. At this juncture, it appears that there is a certain quirkiness to how Google returns results based on guessed intent: more generic but popular consumer queries like “bosch dishwashers” actually do *better* than something more pointed like “bosch dishwashwer reviews.” Although you would think that “bosch dishwasher reviews” would give you more helpful results than the more generic result, chances are what you get instead is less curated, less savvy SERP’s, because even that three-word query with “reviews” in it seems to be a pretty low volume query (read: long tail search query). Long-tail queries right now seem to be quite susceptible to allowing these second-rate Made-for-Adsense, non-best-of-breed sites to rank too high, sometimes first on the page.

It can’t be good for Google’s image to be seemingly so incapable of raising their game on what kind of content users access when they type in an obvious query like “bosch dishwasher reviews.” Surely, it shouldn’t be too hard here to get a handle on the notion that is a non-best-of-breed, scrapey-looking, Made-for-AdSense site should never rank in the top five or six results on the page. And shouldn’t, maybe, Amazon and one or two other sites almost always rank here, as TripAdvisor once did for any travel-related review query?

Perhaps the answer is that Google has lost some of its consumer-advocate’s compass or its focus. It’s also the case, of course, that there are so many challenges with spammy content on the open web that it is hard to keep on top of it all.

Personally, I don’t expect to do every type of custom research using a free, general search engine, hence my rejection of Wadhwa’s specific complaint.

But I do expect Google to serve me some pretty impressive results when I type in a mainstream query about dishwashers. Right now, the main SERP’s aren’t always great, Google keeps shifting how it treats these queries, and Google wants to assume my intent is to compare prices, buy immediately, or find a local vendor to buy it at.

Is Google trying to take tire-kicking, researchey intent and gently massage it into more directly commercial intent? At some point did it lose sight of the fact that it advocates for consumers, rather than representing a Yellow Pages 2.0 listing service for businesses that want to conform to its listing formats? Was a line crossed at some point? Many think it may have been, but all that proves is that Google is a for-profit business.

So yes, this just in, Google can’t be expected to do everything, and yes, it’s flawed in key ways. Charges of a cesspool of spam and junk seem overdone, however. And don’t even get me started on the misguided criticisms of perfectly legitimate AdWords search ads that millions of users happily click on every day.

7 Responses to “Search Isn’t Broken Because One Guy Had Trouble Using Google”

  1. aaron wall says:

    The problem is one of incentive.

    The job of platforms is not just to monetize the network, but also to foster a viable ecosystem.

    I have long thought that one of Google’s biggest problem is not creating (or, at a minimum, promoting) the business models that make the web a better place, while favoring whatever earns them a buck. Originally this was an “anything goes” sorta (non)standards issue, but as Google moves into the role of publisher they further crowd out players who invest in creating something great by sucking off as much value + content as they can & throwing a Google mash-up in front of searchers.

    Publishers figured out that searchers would click ads on junk more than ads on quality content. They also figured out many ways to automatically create “content” in bulk for essentially nothing. The goal then became to automate as much as possible, and try to get the highest Google rev-share you can for feeding them an endless sequence of rehashed automated junk.

    Mahalo was the model to aspire to. ;)

    After people (mostly) stopped linking organically (due to Google FUD, the rise of ‘social’ media, and perhaps burnout from spammy link requests) & clean publishers started going bankrupt, more of the commons were yielded to seedy publishers, and the cycle became far more self-reinforcing.

    I would prefer a web where quality won. But that is not the web we operate on, at least not today.

    Ultimately we can expect Google to rely on other gatekeepers more. At some point they rotate out underpaid freelancer junk and replace it with chunks of Google-hosted ebooks in the search results.

    Google doesn’t mind polluting the hell out of the web, because at the same time they are
    a.) monetizing
    b.) justifying their alternate view of reality they will put forth to replace the current ‘failed’ experiment.

  2. I’m beginning to think there should be a “not-for-profit” search engine, similar in principle to Wikipedia or a listener-supported public radio station. Considering the amount of research that goes on in academia and in *published* corporate research on information retrieval and knowledge discovery, I think it would be relatively easy to find the manpower and the algorithms. All that’s really missing is the hardware and a fundraising strategy.

    I’ve actually used Wikipedia itself as an algorithm research tool. It’s not bad – not as good as the ACM Digital Library or Citeseer – yet – but it’s getting there. But if we had a “public search engine”, then Google and Bing could go ahead and be marketing platforms and tune their efficiency to that purpose.

  3. Vee Sweeney says:

    What I find quite humorous is that people have so many options today when it comes to search. However, any time a person needs to look something up, they head straight to one of the big 3 and then complain about all of its imperfections. If I need a complicated math problem solved, I use Wolfram Alpha; if I want to sift through shopping, image, Amazon, corporate, e-commerce and information sites all in one place, then I choose Google. There are so many niche search engines and engines that only return information. In my opinion, if a person doesn’t like what they are seeing, then use something else. It’s as simple as that.

  4. Drew says:

    The big G is all about making money and you stabbed at this point on your article at the very end…
    “And don’t even get me started on the misguided criticisms of perfectly legitimate AdWords search ads that millions of users happily click on every day. ”

    I think some people aren’t aware of the point that Google is actually a business and are not here to serve just them.

  5. Slightly off topic, but I hope we can solve this one, too. The amount of advertising on YouTube has really increased. If I’m sitting there listening to a classic song that really inspires me, it takes something away from it when I have to look at ads for “Classic Chinese Singles” and “AdWords Holiday Special”. It seems the tradeoff we’ve all made for “free” is highly targeted advertising, but we’ve (the industry has) been talking about targeting for 12 years now and all too often we see ads like this junk… or the ubiquitous “1 Tip of a Flat Belly… this one old tip” crapola, now complete with psychedelic blinking. It’s harder to defend online as the site of more respectful, one-to-one targeting when this is still what consumers are experiencing.

  6. very very good….I think some people aren’t aware of the point that Google is actually a business and are not here to serve just them

  7. Not sure if search is broke. Up until a few months ago I was quite happy using the big G and it always came up with the goodies. However, from a personal perspective I have found my experience and changed and don’t get the good stuff that I used to. I’ve been a heavy G user since 1998 and never had to think about switching.

    But nothing stays the same and it’s always useful to monitor the quality of the search experience. Yes there are the usual suspects who like a good moan, but I honestly think the service has reduced in quality. It’s something that will probably be corrected quite quickly.

    Failing that it’s going to have to be BING, AKA Because It’s Not Google.


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