Ask and You Shall Receive No Traffic

March 5, 2008

About eight months ago, a colleague and I had dinner with two whizzy consultant types from a big city.

One of the conversational topics was Web search, a subject which I make an effort to avoid. Web search evokes for me information of unknown provenance from an unspecified number of Web sites on an unknown update cycle with a murky (at best) method of determining relevancy.

I don’t care which search engine I use or you use.

None is particularly good, so running the same query on different systems is a must for me. I have some short cuts, but it is a chore to sift through chaff to find a couple of informational “Wheaties”.

Try it. Pick a Web search sysem. Enter a single word query like Spears, and you get the drivel of popular culture. Avoid. Like. The. Plague.

Back to the Dinner Chit Chat

The four of us are sitting in the River Creek Inn, a high class motorcycle bar in Harrod’s Creek. I’m trying to decide between the Kentucky favorites, burgoo (squirrel stew with bourbon) or hot brown (white bread, ham, turkey and bourbon-based gravy).

My colleague picks up on a stray comment and asks the male zippy consultant, “Did you say you prefer over or for Web search?”

I gave her my best 64-year old squint, but the zippy male consultant grabbed the opening and launched into an panegyric. I decided on a green salad and turned my attention to this fellow.

What He Liked and My Rejoinders

I recall clearly that this cheerleader liked three aspects of Hold on to your socks:

  1. is easy to use. My comment: No doubt about that. The system has long been a favorite of the middle school crowd. Not a hot demographic, but a good window into the “strengths” of the system
  2. has a better interface than Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, et al. My comment: I know about large, colorful icons and a search box. I’m not sure how this makes search better than Google’s text hot links or the research test Yahoo Mindset slider interface.
  3. is gaining market share and is a real contender in Web search. My comment: Mr. Whizzy Consultant, sir, do you have substantive data to back this assertion? At the time of this meeting in 2007, was a distant fifth in Web search traffic and under pressure from

The zippy consultant seemed shocked that I would challenge his assertions. Today, he probably has conveniently forgotten our table chat and overlooked the news that (formerly is going to morph into a Web site for mid western females. That should make the middle school kids happy when they try to look up Julius Caesar in a few months. You can read the AP story here. The writing was on the wall. I learned several months ago,’s technical guru has returned to academe. On March 4, 2008, I learned that Gary Price, a highly regarded librarian, severed his ties to (or had his ties to severed). You can read his upbeat fare-thee-well here.

Some History: Faux NLP, A Miss with Direct Hit, and Killing the Butler

In the 1990s, was one of the first Web search companies to assert that it performed NLP or natural language processing. The idea was that a user would type a question in the search box; for example, “What’s the weather in Chicago?” AskJeeves would come back with the temperature. I can’t find my screen shots of this function, but I do recall it worked.But — and this is a big caveat — AskJeeves did not do NLP. Humans created templates and rules. When the user’s query matched a template, the rules would form a query, get the aforementioned temperature, and display it.

Send the system a question it didn’t understand and the system would return a bag of jelly beans in many flavors and colors. In less metaphorical terms, the relevancy of the results was full of empty calories.

Direct Hit

To fix the problem of the brutal costs of human editors working like made to create more templates and rules, bought As I recall, was a shopping and ad engine. What sticks in my mind is that DirectHit used tiny orange stick figures to indicate relevance (I think). There was some hoo – haa about AskJeeves’ acquiring this technology, and then it drifted off my radar screen.


AskJeeves’ management team sold off the rules – based question answering system and the public Web search system plopped into the Barry Diller empire.


Teoma, I recall, was developed by technnical wizards at Rutgers University. (I want to note that Rutgers is a great institution as evidenced by the Eagleton Lectureship the university awarded me in the late 1980s.)

Teoma, next generation Web Search, delivers three types of search responses. The results included a traditional laundry list. Teoma also offered “See Also” references and a point-and-click set of hot links to narrow a results set. Some of the queries, as I recall, included links suggested by other users. Today this type of feature is dubbed “social search”.

I liked Teoma, and it became the core engine of

What Happened?

In many ways, did many things correctly. Management focused on a core strength — search. Management acquired and integrated more sophisticated technology. Management established a brand identity, the Jeeves butler who suggested that he was at my service.

What went wrong appears to have been a combination of exogenous forces and a stalwart tripping and falling on her sword.

The exogenous force was the broader market dynamics involving Yahoo, then Google, and more recently Microsoft. Yahoo and Google sucked up most of the search traffic and captured most of the ad revenue. As the distance widened between Google and Yahoo, there wasn’t enough revenue to keep pace with the brutal technical investments required to play the Web indexing game. Compared to Exalead, to cite one example,’s infrastructure was more expensive to scale and more fiddly that the French upstart’s approach based on AltaVista – type engineering.

The self-inflicted wound may have been caused by putting marketing before technology. I am no marketing expert, so my summary is probably off base. I rather liked the butler logo. Like the Google logo, it conveyed some humor and whimsy in what is a bloodless game. I was baffled by some of the advertisements. Other than a general sense of bewilderment, I wasn’t sure what the heck the company was trying to say. I recall sitting in a couple of presentations by, and I came away feeling that the chipper professionals were talking about a system that I did not recognize.

Denoument and a New Beginning

Let’s review what my opinion is:

  1. In order to scale a Web search system, the stakeholders have to be prepared to spend — often substantial sums without much notice. When that money is not available, short cuts become evident. These range from marketing sleight of hand, wacko advertising, and graphic tweaks.
  2. Any search engine working against a headwind and a three percent market share is tough. MBAs often see the search challenge as trivial. It’s not. If you have the technology to leap frog ahead of Google, you can pull Googzilla’s tail, maybe slow Googzilla down. But good enough solutions won’t do the job.
  3. The service was a positioned differently as the various owners / managers tried to turn a digital pig’s ear into a digital golden goose. Killing the venerable Jeeves character presaged the demise of the broader service.

The information superhighway is littered with road kill. Some of these are still around; for example, there’s,, and Have you used these today? And what about,, or Maybe you are using,,,, or I’ve got a list of a couple of hundred international search engines, lists of metasearch engines, and lists of more than 350 companies offering search and content processing systems. At this time, none of these outfits are able to hobble Googzilla if my understanding of usage data is correct.

Back to the Biggie Consultants

When a biggie consultant asserts that a long-shot with a track record of coming in last in a five or six year race, I’m not going to let that dog sleep peacefully. Don’t misunderstand me. I need access to multiple, high-quality Web search systems. As nifty as Google is, my tests reveal that if I run a query such as text mining or content processing on Google, I will double the number of relevant hits if I use two other Web search systems.

Here are a few observations about Web search, which I will use to control this “I told you so” essay.

First, Web indexing is a messy, complicated, and imprecise activity. Web robots can’t index servers when the servers are down or when network issues create time outs. A searcher does not know what’s omitted, what’s new, or what’s old in most cases. None of the systems I track provide much substantive information about the “certainty” of a result, its date of creation and when the content was refreshed, the “quality” of the information, and so on. Not only are Web results spotty, in most cases, I have zero useful information to help me determine what’s correct and what’s dead wrong. Social search sounds great, but social systems can be easy to twiddle, spoof, and fast dance?

Second, more Web sites are dynamic today than in the past. This means that static, easy to index Web pages make up a smaller percentage of public pages with content. Dynamic sites are more difficult to spider because robot technology does a lousy job with dynamic sites. There’s a solution, but it is even more expensive, complex, and difficult than indexing good, old flat HTML, XHTML, or XML pages. (Google has this technology called the Programmable Search Engine, but so far the company has been keeping it under wraps.) Under-funded tech operations find it tough to compete because the people and the money are not available.

Third, user behaviors are changing in step with the access devices. With more queries flowing from mobile devices, different processes are needed. Who wants to browse results on a tiny screen even if it is a state of the art iPhone or BlackBerry?

Fourth, search is drifting toward point-and-click interfaces and even more sophisticated approaches. What I call “beyond search” techniques.

To conclude, biggie consultants who assert that a particular search system will gain market share based on personal preferences and lack of information are much in evidence today. There’s no lack of talk about innovation in Web search. But I for one am waiting for to become available. I’m annoyed that has such lousy marketing for an interesting and useful service. I want a leap frog system to take me beyond Google.

I “ask” so that I may receive. Whizzy big city consultants don’t ask; they assert. Doesn’t work sometimes, does it?

Stephen Arnold, March 5, 2008


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