Search Quality: 2022 Style

January 11, 2022

I read the interesting “Is Google Search Deteriorating? Measuring Google’s Search Quality in 2022?” The approach is different from what was the approach used at the commercial database outfits for which I worked decades ago. We knew what our editorial policy was; that is, we could tell a person exactly what was indexed, how it was indexed, how classification codes were assigned, and what the field codes were for each item in our database. (A field code for those who have never encountered the term means an index term which disambiguates a computer terminal from an airport terminal.) When we tested a search engine — for example, a touch of the DataStar systems — we could determine the precision and recall of the result set. This was math, not an opinion. Yep, we had automatic indexing routines, but we relied primarily on human editors and subject matter experts with a consultant or two tossed in for good measure. (A tip of the Silent 700 paper feed to you, Betty Eddison.)

The cited article takes a different approach. It is mostly subjective. The results of the analysis is that Google is better than Bing. Here’s a key passage:

So Google does outperform Bing (the difference is statistically significant)…

Okay, statistics.

Several observations:

First, I am not sure either Bing’s search team or Google’s search team knows what is in the indexes at any point in time. I assume someone could look, but I know from first hand experience that the young wizards are not interested in the scope of an index. The interest is reducing the load or computational cost of indexing new content objects and updating certain content objects, discarding content domains which don’t pay for their computational costs, and similar MBA inspired engineering efficiencies. Nobody gets a bonus for knowing what’s indexed, when, why, and whether that index set is comprehensive. How deep does Google go unloved Web sites like the Railway Retirement Board?

Second, without time benchmarks and hard data about precision and recall, the subjective approach to evaluating search results misses the point of Bing and Google. These are systems which must generate revenue. Bing has been late to the party, but the Redmond security champs are giving ad sales the old college drop out try.  (A tip of the hat to MSFT’s eternal freshman, Bill Gates, too.) The results which are relevant are the ones that by some algorithmic cartwheels burn through the ad inventory. Money, not understanding user queries, supporting Boolean logic, including date and time information about the content object and when it was last indexed, are irrelevant. In one meeting, I can honestly say no one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned “time” index points.

Third, there are useful search engines which should be used as yardsticks against which to measure the Google and the smaller pretender, Bing. Why not include Swisscows.ch or Yandex.ru or Baidu.com or any of the other seven or eight Web centric and no charge systems. I suppose one could toss in the Google killer Neeva and a handful of metasearch systems. Yep, that’s work. Set up standard queries. Capture results. Analyze those results. Calculate result overlap. Get subject matter experts to evaluate the results. Do the queries at different points in time for a period of three months or more, etc., etc. This is probably not going to happen.

Fourth, what has been filtered. Those stop word lists are fascinating and they make it very difficult to find certain information. With traditional libraries struggling for survival, where is that verifiable research process going to lead? Yep, ad centric, free search systems. It might be better to just guess at some answers.

Net net: Web search is not very good. It never has been. For fee databases are usually an afterthought if thought of at all. It is remarkable how many people pass themselves off as open source intelligence experts, expert online researchers, or digital natives able to find “anything” using their mobile phone.

Folks, most people are living in a cloud of unknowing. Search results shape understanding. A failure of search just means that users have zero chance to figure out if a result from a free Web query is much more than Madison Avenue, propaganda, crooked card dealing, or some other content injection goal.

That’s what one gets when the lowest cost methods to generate the highest ad revenue are conflated with information retrieval. But, hey, you can order a pizza easily.

Stephen E Arnold, January 11, 2022

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