The Generic Search Engine Myth

I’m just wondering whether Google’s goal of being able to answer all questions for all people is really either achievable or desirable. I mean I know its desirable to Google but what about the rest of us?

Recent updates to Google’s searches have made it clear that sites providing search or linking are “no longer acceptable”. The declared aim, very laudable it is too, is to remove all of those horrible thin link sites from the results to give cleaner, clearer responses. Indeed, a common phrase now is “why would I want to link to you if you just link elsewhere, why not just go straight ‘elsewhere’ myself” ….

But the question in my head is, can a generic search engine with limited semantic capability really answer topic specific questions? If the answer is “yes” then I suggest that imdb, Wikipedia and a whole range of other sites need to pack up and go home as all of their internal links and all of their data expertise will soon be replaced with simple google search links 😉

The simple answer, of course, is that Google can never answer all the questions because they don’t know what is inside the users head when they asked it …. I suspect that there are more people searching “panda death” at the moment than ever before but is this concern for our endangered wildlife or worry about Google’s own algorithm updates? Google can not know that, indeed the same person may well mean both things in separate searches on the same day! Of course, the user can expect to get somewhat off-beam results if they use only a few keywords in their search but I would argue that that may well be what we want to be able to do.

If I were standing in a library and I was looking for “giraffe” I have several options ….probably the most likely are

1) Pick up Encyclopedia Britannica (volume “ganges to hyena” or whatever) and get some basic information

2) Pick up a book on animals and get more specific information

3) Select a nice hefty book on African Mammals and get quite detailed information

4) Pick up a book on Wild Animal Veterinary Practices and … well, you get the idea

In search engine terms, (1) is like looking things up on Google, the editor of the encyclopedia didn’t know what context I was looking for (what the heck is a giraffe?, where do giraffes live?, how long do giraffes live? …) so will have filtered all the world’s giraffe knowledge based on what most people are likely to find interesting – just as Google does.

What this “library analogy” shows though is that, depending on what I want, I will select a “search context” before doing the actual search – I do not expect generic tools to do a specific job, I expect them to do the generic job well … as Google increasingly does. But, and its a huge Panda Butt (!) if I want more specific information then I will use a more specific book … in this argument for ‘book’ read ‘search tool’ …

So to answer situation (4) above I need a Veterinary site with a wildlife section where I can search or use the expertly gathered and annotated links that the site author has put together to help me go to whilst avoiding… However, a general Veterinary site with those characteristics would fall foul of Google’s view of a “good site” as they don’t themselves have the Giraffe articles on!

In other words, it is very important to me to have a search engine (Google) which will actually find other search engines and indeed even high quality link sites!

Google  has mistakenly assumed that if I type a question into it then the ONLY good answer is the final answer … this is simply not true … if  Google tells me who knows the right answer then that is also a good outcome … unless you are Google and feel that the whole world of human knowledge should be yours to filter as you see fit.

Google has recognised some of this, of course, as they now geo-code results so that you can find things in specific areas and they also have a QDF function that changes how they view the “age” of an article – for some things they think that oldest is best and for others they think that freshest is best – what you think is neither here nor there 😉

By the way, if you type “search engine” into Google then Google only comes fourth 😉