Has Search Evolved or Is It Spinning in Circles?

February 28, 2019

We have long been frustrated that search technology has changed into “we will tell you what you need to know.” Search is asking. Providing answers based on behavior is manipulation or a digital version of “mother knows best.”

Smart software or “AI” technology may fundamentally change how we find information online. Forbes asks, “Might AI Spell the Death of Search?” Writer Michael Ashley observes:

“‘This is the first time since 1994 when the search paradigm has changed,’ says David Seuss, CEO of Northern Light, a Boston-based strategic research portal provider I consult with that offers a cloud-based SaaS to global enterprises. ‘In 1994, you went to a search box, filled in a query, hit the search button, and received a list of documents. You manually reviewed these, picking the most relevant item to download. Fast forward to 2019 and it’s still the same thing. Find me one other part of the tech landscape that has not changed since the ’90s, whether it be broadband, wireless, mobile cloud computing, artificial intelligence—everything has changed. Everything except search.’”

The former consultant is doing consultant type thinking. There is a problem, and the consultant can ride to the rescue. A digital Lone Ranger can kill the useless system outputs. Well, that’s the story line.

Seuss claims it is Millennials that are pushing for change. Older users were just so happy to search from their desks instead of in the library stacks, he posits, that most of them remain satisfied with 90s-style online search.

The younger generation, though, find manually reviewing search results inefficient, and they recognize that a lot of good information tends to get buried later in the search results—especially as paid listings claim the top spots. Ashley writes:

“With the help of A.I., tasks once relegated to flesh and blood researchers can be now accomplished by computers. Drawing on the latter’s pattern-forming and predictive abilities, it can observe users’ actions, discerning their interests based on what they download, share, comment on or bookmark. Informed by this knowledge, an A.I. can proactively—and without manual prompting—recommend relevant content to users. Disrupting the traditional search model to its page ranking core, content can seek out the user instead of the other way around.”

Not surprisingly, the piece cites Northern Light’s platform as an example of the new, AI-powered possibilities: it quickly examines documents relevant to a query and presents a summary of pertinent information. The author ponders a time, close at hand, when the information we need finds us when we need it.

That sounds good, but I wonder—how can one be sure the algorithms are choosing wisely? What’s the old adage about consultants? Keep your hand on your wallet?

Cynthia Murrell, February 28, 2019

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