Google is absurd. Just consider the name. It sounds like a contraction of “goose noodle.”
Seriously, though, Google has succeeded in becoming the predominant search engine for the internet, a service that 20 years ago nobody knew we needed. And in doing so, it is sowing the seeds of its own demise.
Leaving aside my concerns about Google as a multinational corporation (a valid concern shared by others), I want to examine instead the workings of its flagship product: Google Search.
I use Google as a search engine almost daily, for both work and personal reasons. I don’t claim any knowledge of the algorithms that go into the search function. I don’t even know what an algorithm is. But with my searches, I can locate some pretty obscure stuff, teasing out the strands of the World Wide Web to find what I’m looking for. I am, as they say, a power user.
Google has been there for me, and for that I’m grateful. But I can see some cracks in the armor. If things continue the way they are going, Google’s search effectiveness as I have come to know it will eventually approach zero. Here’s why.
Google’s rise to prominence came from the way it provides the result you are most likely looking for within the first ten results, what the company’s developers call PageRank. This likelihood is based on many factors. One of those factors is the frequency with which a particular web page or website is searched for, and that’s what concerns me.
Google now includes a feature where, the moment you begin typing in their query box, suggestions pop up of what you might be searching for. They call this autocomplete, and it is designed as “a reflection of the search activity of all web users and the content of web pages indexed by Google” according to the Help page on Google.
This means that the words that pop up in the box are there because that is what people are using Google to search for. Again, according to Google, “all of the predicted queries that are shown in the drop-down list have been typed previously by Google users or appear on the web.”
Presumably, this also affects the PageRank. All of this information is being churned inside Google’s processors to provide you with what they think you think you want.
But people don’t know what they want. Consider that the average internet user doesn’t know the difference between the URL address bar in a web browser, and a search engine. When these two very different features of the Web get confused, the effectiveness of searching becomes diluted.
As an experiment, I entered a single letter into the Google search box to see what the autocomplete suggested. Here are some of the results.
- Type n, and the first suggestion is Netflix. The URL for Netflix is http://www.netflix.com. Why would anyone ever need to search for Netflix? The URL is so simple, there is no need. It’s not that difficult, people.
- Type a, and the first suggestion is Amazon. Just for laughs, I accepted that suggestion, and as I figured, it took me to Amazon.com, not the river in South America. How hard is it to remember http://www.amazon.com?
- Type f, and the first suggestion is Facebook (really?? yes!). Type g, and the first one is Google. Why would anyone google Google??
You get the idea. While research is being conducted on how to make the autocomplete more predictive of what users are searching for, there is little to explain why anyone would be using a query box to find a simple, easily-known URL in the first place.
Perhaps many view the search engine as a gateway to the Web. But this way of using the internet tells us something important. If these are the terms that people in fact are using in their searches, it means that, instead of using the Web to find knowledge, meaning, or purpose, they are using Google to find a commercial Web address they can’t be bothered to remember. That doesn’t hold much promise for our future.
It’s possible that Google knows all this already. The company has diversified far beyond the basic search engine, with over a hundred subsidiaries including Motorola and YouTube, so that even if that engine seizes up one day, they won’t suffer.
I guess that will be the day I search for a new search engine.