Google Vulnerable to IBM Watson: Interesting Sort Of

October 5, 2013

Wired Magazine has done some interesting things. Once headlines were invisible to those who suffered from color blindness. Then there were editors who morphed from real journalism into global media magnates and Drukeresque business pundits. Now there is a story which pits IBM search technology against Google’s ad based search machine.


Crossing the search swamp. Image source:

Navigate to “Google in Jeopardy: What If IBM’s Watson Dethroned the King of Search.” Read it. Now. I cannot do the write up justice. I did mark a couple of passages as worthy of my “Use Later” file. At my age, I don’t think I will get to this burgeoning file. The addled goose is ageing and losing hope for eternal life. I will leave that the the Kurweilians of the world.

Passage One:

If IBM did search, Watson would do much better than Google on the tough problems, and they could still resort to a simple PageRank-like algorithm as a last resort. Which means there would be no reason for anyone to start their searches on Google. All the search traffic that makes Google seemingly invincible now could begin to shrink over time.

What strikes me is that IBM “did” search. There was STAIRS. There were prescient search initiatives which went from IBM to outfits like Google. Anyone know about CLEVER and Dr. Kleinberg? Anyone remember WebFountain? What about Ramanathan Guha? ATS? Inform/360? Patent Miner? Text-Pac? Aquarius? Elms? And more! IBM has been in search for decades and pretty much shifted from proprietary search to open source search with proprietary wrappers. Open source search allows IBM to use nuts and bolts from open source and redeploy resources to “add value” to a search system which is free to download. Do you have an IBM supercomputer and the funds to pay IBM’s engineers to get content into Watson, tune it, and integrate it into your organization? Better do some back of envelope cost analyses before inking a deal for Watson.

Passage Two:

Interestingly, IBM has the capability — despite the reality that IT-based competencies are not easy to replicate — to assemble a “good enough” version of a search engine. And while Google could probably build a Watson, it would take years to do so, and Google isn’t used to playing catch-up (not to mention this kind of approach goes against its DNA for how it thinks about search). We know that stalwarts like IBM, Microsoft, and Apple have all appeared invincible at some point in their history only to be unceremoniously dethroned; the most recent example was Blackberry. Some leaders like Microsoft, however, made clever use of network effects — where a good becomes more valuable as more people use it — to lock in customers and remain entrenched.


Yep, IBM has the capability but IBM has not been able to crack the search problem. Let’s be upfront. Google did not crack search. Google found a way to monetize online advertising at scale. Search is the word slapped on the presentation of results based on Google’s designs, not on editorial policies that are clearly articulated, precision, and recall. Google’s taken out the easy costs of search.

True, Google is vulnerable, but the risk is not that another system will knock off Google any time soon. A greater risk to Google includes:

  1. The durability of the founders may be a distraction. Google is fancy dancing with interesting demonstrations as it races to fund bioengineering to deal with interesting health problems of some modest interest to its founders. The focus of management may not be on monetizing as much as it is on some interesting sidelights in synthetic biology
  2. Mobile is different when it comes to advertising. The shift to mobile means that Google’s traditional desktop advertising model will lose steam relative to desktop-centric advertising. However, Google has some monetization options which it can implement with little notice. Mobile usage is different from desktop usage, and Google will be pressed to out innovate those who are focusing on the non search future of mobile usage. Predictive analytics may not be the new golden goose.
  3. Big outfit momentum. Good, bad, or indifferent—momentum is the friend of the Google and of IBM. The adage “Beavers do what beavers do” applies to Google and IBM. I don’t see either firm jumping from the track each firm is following. Sure, the aircraft carriers can be slowed and stopped. Just. Not. Quickly.

For now, Watson is a great PR play. I keep looking for a public demonstration of Watson as a front end to a public data set like the unclassified Google is a fascinating study of a maturing Internet company.

For now, Google is an online advertising company desperately seeking new revenue.

Like Microsoft, both Google and IBM face internal challenges as significant as the “externalities” that thrill economists.

When it comes to online research, a semi-savvy researcher will use multiple systems and human judgment. When information is needed in real time, people remain quite useful. Without knowledge of what’s indexed and what the system constraints are, how can one trust the outputs of any giant system whose purpose is to produce revenue for a giant corporation?

I rely on multiple online services and people in that order. Based on my limited knowledge of these two companies, Google will track in advertising and IBM will sell enterprise consulting services for the foreseeable future. The PR may change, but the momentum of each firm cannot be ignored nor the time and difficulty of changing direction. IBM’s track record in search is unlikely to differ from its previous efforts. Google, well, are those results objective or ads?

IBM’s product is consulting. Google’s product is information about its customers. Whither search? A good question.

Stephen E Arnold, October 5, 2013


One Response to “Google Vulnerable to IBM Watson: Interesting Sort Of”

  1. IBM and the Upstarts : Stephen E. Arnold @ Beyond Search on October 8th, 2013 9:38 am

    […] IBM can challenge Google in search. I offered my view of that interesting idea in the write up “Google Vulnerable to IBM Watson: Interesting Sort Of.” To add some support to my assertion that IBM may have a tough time knocking Google out of the […]

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