Google: Search Is So Yesterday

June 26, 2014

When I learned about Backrub in the late 1990s, I was struck by the cross fertilization of ideas the concept embraced. There were hints of Jon Kleinberg’s Clever, a dusting of the Fuzzy-era Lycos, and the clever optimization methods of Alta Vista.

At the time of the dust up between Google and Yahoo about online advertising, I saw a shift from quasi-objective search results to a pay-to-play approach to information. At the time, the Internet was a novelty for many people. The commercial database search business demonstrated that sophisticated searching was difficult for many trained information professionals. The future, I concluded, was for mass access to users who would never grasp the difference between precision and recall or care much about information provenance and accuracy.

I have followed the write ups about Google’s massive self-promotion conference. As other for-fee conferences struggle, the Google gathering is headline news. Comparing the Google I/O event to a conference focused on search or database technology is like comparing the World Cup to a high school soccer match. Big difference.

A good example of the distance between Backrub (the precursor to Google search) and today’s multi-billion behemoth built on advertising is the story “Everything You Need to Know about Google’s I/O Keynote.” The categorical affirmative is a variation on listicle rhetoric: Get the info quickly.

Here’s the key point I noted:

More than anything else, today’s keynote demonstrated Google’s ambition to take its mobile OS basically everywhere: to your car, to your body, to your television, to your laptop, even into your workplace. We saw a preview of Android’s L release, with a new design—Google calls it material design—that adds some depth features, support for 64 bit, and an enhanced notifications system that will help people interact with their applications in powerful ways without ever launching the app itself.

What’s this tell us about the role of search at Google? This is an easy question. It strikes me that search is a convenient way to generate revenue as Google works overtime to develop a revenue stream to complement online advertising.

For those who expect objective search results, the future of search looks dim. No other vendor has stepped forward and offered an option that provides large numbers of users with objective results. There are some promising systems, but these are largely demonstrations or graduate student projects.

Net net: It will become more difficult to obtain objective search results going forward. For a person who needs accurate, timely information the research job is going to get more difficult in the months ahead.

Good news for those who want information about certain topics, less positive for those who assume that online information is accurate, easy, free, and ubiquitous.Perhaps search results should be displayed with a trigger warning?

Stephen E Arnold, June 26, 2014


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