In the world of search, Google was in the right place at the right time with the right technology and people. This remarkably hard thing to achieve has been rewarded by a large customer base and a vast overvaluation of public stock. Don’t get me wrong, this is a standout company in a sea of mediocrity. They provide incredibly useful services free to the public and are reasonably good so far at “do(ing) no evil“. They have a neat system for serving up targeted advertising that is unobtrusive and wildly successful, while admittedly failible in its judgement since it is an artificial intellgence.
While I’m not crazy about the sudden concentration of wealth and talent at Google, they do seem to be putting it to excellent use thus far. Some particularly interesting and useful projects they are working on include Google print, local, alerts and scholar. I left out desktop search because many companies have a head start and do it better. Keyhole is an interesting aquisition giving us “a user interface for our planet” but I think the best product to come out of their labs is Gmail (more on this later). All of these cool projects aside, Google has come to be known for one thing: a simple and intuitive search engine that keeps everyone coming back.
My main issue with Google is a side effect of market share and overuse: users intoxicated with their rapid and easy successes with the intuitive Google toolset are definitely going to miss out on lots of quality material. Most material on the web that either doesn’t show up at all in Google or is drowned in a sea of Google-gaming. This problem turns into a self perpetuating systemic bias when most of the internet user population is using Google. Seven out of ten internet users see the same results in the same order which is not a good thing for the ecology of the internet. I find myself frequently having to go to non-Google sources of information to avoid the skewed version of reality resulting from these beer-Googles:
At stake is only your perception of the world, and as Philip K. Dick, author of Minority Report and Bladerunner, explains: “Comprehension follows perception.” Simply put, using only Google to search the web will bias your education.
If you can handle the added complexity, use a search engine aggregator to get results from as many search engines as possible. Quebec’s own Copernic agent has a free version and does a great job. It uses dozens of search sources and allows for saved searches, search histories, and scheduled searches among many other features. For a more lightweight and cross-platform experience try DogPile which supports fewer search engines but doesn’t require a windows client installation. Another search engine of note is AskJeeves (they use the Teoma search engine which is fast and returns excellent results). The new MSN search engine is looking promising. For a retro experience try the awesome wayback machine, one of the few weapons against the revisionist internet. Use it to look for something that used to be on the web, or to find out what a web site served up last year.
The Sticky Problem
At the end of the day it is easy to switch search engines or aggregate them. This creates a problem for Google since other engines will catch up in feature set or becomes masters of specialized searching (e.g. Amazon for books). To protect and expand the impressive Adsense customer base, Google needs to keep users coming back. According to Tim O’Reilly “network effects and data, rather than software APIs, are the new tools of customer lock-in.” Google can’t rely on its positive buzz and market lead in providing “better data” forever and so it needs to foster “network effects.”
While many other search engines have been adding sticky features to track history and save results (My Ask Jeeves and A9) Google has been developing “stickier” services: community based services such as Gmail, Groups and Orkut for social networking. It remains to be seen if these services will help bring people back to Google to get their advertisin…I mean find what they are looking for, but if Gmail’s impressive design is any indication I think they are going to succeed.
Infreemation for Education
Why is the development of search engines so important? Having information freely and easily available improves our ability to educate, pursue research, make further discoveries, and evolve our knowledge. This is why schools tend to have libraries. This is what makes Canada’s web copyright proposal so worrisome.
Google may end up being the next version of the yellow pages but will not necessarily remain the search champion. Choice is fundamental to the architecture of the internet. Other search engines and alternative sources of information will survive and thrive thanks to the ever lowering costs of storing, sorting and transmitting information on the internet. Unless some kind of crazy DRM scheme achieves legal status in all countries connected to the internet, we continue to head towards having a modern version of the library of Alexandria in our own homes, at a very affordable monthly fee.