Calling Out Search: Too Little, Too Late

January 20, 2020

The write up’s title is going to be censored in DarkCyber. We are not shrinking violets, but we think that stop word lists do exist. Problem? Buzz your favorite ad supported search vendor and voice your complaints.

The write is “How Is Search So #%&! Bad? A ‘Case Study’.” The author appears to be frustrated with the outputs of ad supported and probably other types of seemingly “free” search systems providing links to Web content. This is what some people call “open source intelligence online”. There are other information resources available, but most of the consumer oriented, eyeball hungry vendors ignore i2p, forums with minimal traffic, what some experts call the Dark Web, and even some government information services. How many people pay any attention to the US National Archives? Be honest in your assessment.

Here’s a passage we noted:

Google Search is ridiculously, utterly bad.

This seems clear.

The write up provides some examples, but I anticipate that some other people have found that the connection between a user’s query and the Google search outputs is tenuous at best. One criticism DarkCyber has of the write up is that it mentions Google, shifts to Reddit, and then to metadata. The key point for us was the focus on time.

Now time is an interesting issue in indexing. Years ago I did a research project on the “meaning” of “real time” in online services. I think my research team identified five or six different types of time. I will skip the nuances we identified and focus only on the data or freshness of an item in a results list.

Let’s by sympathetic to the indexing company. Here’s why:

First, many documents do not provide an explicit date in the text of the article. In Beyond Search and DarkCyber, you will notice that we provide the author’s name and a day and data at which the article was posted. Many write ups on the open Web don’t bother. In fact, there will be no easy way to date the time the author posted the story within the content displayed in a browser. Don’t you love news releases which do not include a date, time, and time zone?

Second, many write ups include dates and times in the text of an article. For example, the reference to Day 2 of the recent CES trade show may include the explicit date January 8, 2020, for a product announcement. The approach is similar to using CES without spelling out “Consumer Electronics Show.” Buy, hey, these folks are busy, and everyone in the know understands the what and when, right?

Third, auto-assigned dates by operating systems may be “correct” when a file or content object is created. But what happens when a file or drive is restored? The original dates and metadata may be replaced with the time stamp of the restore. What about date last accessed or date last changed? Too much detail. Yada yada.

Fourth, time sorting is possible. Google invested in Recorded Future (now part of Insight). I had heard that someone at the GOOG thought Recorded Future’s time functions were nifty. Guess not. Google did not implement more sophisticated time functions in any service other than those related to advertising. For the great unwashed masses of those who don’t work at Google, tough luck I supposed.

Fifth, when was the content first indexed. More significantly, when was the content last updated. Important? May be, gentle reader. May be.

There are several other conditions as well. For the purposes of a blog post, I want to make clear: The person who is annoyed with search should have been annoyed decades ago. These time problems are not new, and they are persistent.

The author with a penchant for tardy profanity stated:

Part of the issue in this specific case is that they’ve started ignoring settings for displaying results from specific time periods. It’s definitely not the whole issue though, and not something new or specific to phone searches. Now, I’ve always been biased towards the new – books, tech, everything, but I can’t help but feel that a lot of things which were done pretty well before are done worse today. We do have better technology, yet we somehow build inferior solutions with it all too often. Further, if they had the same bias of showing me only recent results I’ll understand it better, but that’s not even the case. And yes, I get that the incentives of users and providers don’t align perfectly, that Google isn’t your friend, etc. But what is DDG’s excuse? As for the Case Study part, and me saying this isn’t simply a rant – I lied, hence the quotation marks in the title. Don’t trust everything you read, especially the goddamn dates on your search results.

The write up omits a few other minor problems with modern search and retrieval systems. Yep, this includes Reddit, LinkedIn, and a bunch of others. Let me provide a few dot points:

  • Poorly implemented Boolean search
  • Zero information about what’s in an index
  • Zero information about what’s excluded from and index and why
  • Minimal auto linking to information about an “author” or the “source” of the content
  • No data to make a precision or recall calculation possible and reproducible
  • No data to make it possible to determine overlap among Web indexes. Analyses must be brute forced. Due to the volatility, latency, and editorial vagaries of ad supported Web search systems, data are mostly suggestive.

Why? Why are none of these dot points operative?

Answer: Too expensive, too hard, not appropriate for our customers, and “What are you talking about? We never heard of half these issues you identified.”

Net net: Years ago I wrote an article for Searcher Magazine, edited at the time by Barbara Quint, a bit of an expert in online information retrieval. She worked at RAND for a number of years as an information expert. She said, “Do you really want me to use the title ‘Search Sucks’ on your article.” I told her, use whatever title you want. But if you agree with me, go with “sucks.”  She used “sucks”. Let’s see that was a couple of decades ago.

Did anyone care? Nope. Does anyone care today? Nope. There you go.

Stephen E Arnold, January 20, 2020

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