Search engines: filling the googleholes

In the article “Digging for Googleholes” on Slate, Steven Johnson talks about some of the reasons why you might not be able to find information using the “all-knowing” Google:

“Search for ‘apple’ on Google, and you have to troll through a couple pages of results before you get anything not directly related to Apple Computer?and it’s a page promoting a public TV show called Newton’s Apple. After that it’s all Mac-related links until Fiona Apple’s home page. You have to sift through 50 results before you reach a link that deals with apples that grow on trees: the home page for the Washington State Apple Growers Association. To a certain extent, this probably reflects the interest of people searching as well as those linking, but is the world really that much more interested in Apple Computer than in old-fashioned apples?”

Some of the arguments he uses are spurious. The one I quoted, for example, is like complaining that your friendly local librarian gave you a book on computers when went up to them and just said “apple.” Without more specific information, a human isn’t going to know you wanted to know about fruit. Google may have the knowledge of thousands of librarians at its fingertips, but it still can’t read your mind.

However, this does highlight the issue that Google (and other search engines) don’t make it clear how much information you have to specify before they’ll bring back a relevant set of search results. If you enter one term, you’ll often get back a lot of useless junk. But if you enter twenty words, you might get nothing back at all. Is it better to enter ten words and get a single, highly targeted page that matches them all; or five words to get a single page of results, with the benefit that you can scan the list and see which one is most promising?

(As a side note, I wonder how many words (on average) are sufficient to narrow down a query to a single page of results?)

Searching is a skill that has to be learned. You don’t step into a typical university library and expect to be able to dig up the most relevant information about Mesopotamian goat-herding in an eyeblink. Unless you’ve spent time learning how to use a library, you probably wouldn’t even know where to start. It is often said that knowing how to find information is just as, if not more useful than knowing the information itself. In our information-rich world, this skill is only going to become more important.

Google provides a good, simple starting point, so that even novice searchers should be able to find something. At the other end of the bell curve you have people skilled enough to act as the human back-end for Google Answers. What about the people in the middle, though? Do they even know about all the advanced searching techniques you can use? How will they find out about them? Will they have the time to spend coming to grips with them? The “advanced search” link on most search engines is easily overlooked, and when you get to the advanced page, it is usually orders of magnitude more complex than the simple search.

Personally, I think that Google is as good as we’ve got right now. But I do reckon there’s lots of scope for improvement. And I wouldn’t bet too heavily against Microsoft pulling it off. They have a history of targeting the middle ground of computing, and making it the default option. (And then proceeding to make good money from it.)

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