Waking Up to a Basic Fact of Online: Search and Retrieval Is Terrible

October 10, 2022

I read “Why Search Sucks.” The metadata for the article is, and I quote:


I spotted the article in a newsfeed, and I noticed it was published in April 2022 maybe? Who knows. Running a query on Bing, Google and Yandex  for “Insider why search sucks” yielded links to the original paywalled story. The search worked. The reason has more to do with search engine optimization, Google prioritization of search-related information, and the Sillycon Valley source.

Why was there no “$” to indicate a paywall. Why was the data of publication not spelled out in the results? I have no idea. Why one result identified Savanna Durr as the author and the article itself said Adam Rogers was the author?

So for this one query and for billions of users of free, ad-supported Web search engines work so darned well? Free and good enough are the reasons I mention. (Would you believe that some Web search engines have a list of “popular” queries, bots that look at Google results, and workers who tweak the non Google systems to sort of like Google? No. Hey, that’s okay with me.)

The cited article “Why Search Sucks” takes the position that search and retrieval is terrible. Believe me. The idea is not a new one. I have been writing about information access for decades. You can check out some of this work on the Information Today Web site or in the assorted monographs about search that I have written. A good example is the three editions of the “Enterprise Search Report.” I have been consistent in my criticism of search. Frankly not much has changed since the days of STAIRS III and the Smart System. Over the decades, bells and whistles have been added, but to find what one wants online requires consistent indexing, individuals familiar with sources and their provenance, systems which allow the user to formulate a precise query, and online systems which do not fiddle the results. None of these characteristics is common today unless you delve into chemical structure search and even that is under siege.

The author of the “Why Search Sucks” article focuses on some use cases. These are:

  • Email search
  • Social media search (Yep, the Zuckbook properties and the soon to be a Tesla fail whale)
  • Product search (Hello, Amazon, are you there?
  • Streaming search.

The write up provides the author’s or authors’ musings about Google and those who search. The comments are interesting, but none moves the needle.

Stepping back from the write up, I formulated several observations about the write up and the handling of search and its suckiness.

First, search is not a single thing. Specific information retrieval systems and methods are needed for certain topics and specific types of content. I referenced chemical structures intentionally because the retrieval systems must accept visual input, numerical input, words, and controlled term names. A quite specific search architecture and user training are required to make certain queries return useful results. Give Inconel a whirl if you have access to a structured search system. The idea that there is a “universal search” is marketing and just simple minded. Believe it or not one of today’s Googlers complained vociferously on a conference call with a major investment bank about my characterization of Google and the then almost useless Yahoo search.

Second, the pursuit of “good enough” is endemic among researchers and engineers in academic institutions and search-centric vendors. Good enough means that the limits of user capability, system capacity, budget, and time are balanced. Why not fudge how many relevant results exist for a user looking for a way to convert a link into a dot point on a slide in a super smart and busy executive’s PowerPoint for a luncheon talk tomorrow? Trying to deliver something works and meets measurable standards of precision and recall is laughable to some in the information retrieval “space” today.

Third, the hope that “search startups” will deliver non-sucking search is amusing. Smart people have been trying to develop software which delivers on point results with near real time information for more than 50 years. The cost and engineering to implement this type of system is losing traction in the handful of organizations capable of putting up the money, assembling the technical team, and getting the plumbing working is shrinking. Start ups. Baloney.

Net net: I find it interesting that more articles express dismay and surprise that today’s search and retrieval systems suck. After more than half a century of effort, that’s where we are. Fascinating it is that so many self proclaimed search experts are realizing that their self positioning might be off by a country mile.

Stephen E Arnold, October 10, 2022


One Response to “Waking Up to a Basic Fact of Online: Search and Retrieval Is Terrible”

  1. And finally....! - Informer on November 4th, 2022 7:57 am

    […] is also worth reading two recent posts from Steve Arnold, the US search guru, on the difficulties of making search work and the challenges of supporting search with a […]

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