Searching Questions: how good is Google?

April 6th, 2011 by

microtask_google_goodDo you remember the first time you used Google? The white screen, the goofy logo, the incomprehensible “I’m feeling lucky” button.

What did you search for? (if you were a teenage boy, don’t answer that). In the bad old days of dial-up, Google was a (relatively) fast, flashing and seemingly benevolent oasis of free information.

These days Google is big. Really big. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are both multi-billionaires. 64% of all web searches start beneath those famous letters. To millions of users “Google” and “the web” are virtually interchangeable terms.

But is Google’s virtual monopoly good for the internet? In his book The Googalization of Everything, media expert Siva Vaidhyanathan asks if it’s healthy for one largely unregulated corporation to dominate online.

A big friendly giant?
Google is much more than just a search engine. You can do a Google search for a Google Map on a Google browser using a Google phone while being driven by a Google car (spot the odd one out). Prof. Vaidhyanathan’s problem (well, one of his problems: it’s a 300 page book) is that as Google grows, the company is becoming less about “organizing the sum total of human knowledge” and more about shopping.

The professor argues that Google products and searches increasingly favor “the recent over the classic, the local over the global, the personal over the universal.” A search engine focused on “now”, “here” and “me” is great if you want to find the best iPad 2 deals or hook up with your friendly local crowdsourcing startup. But less useful if you need to search complex scientific data sets or track down news headlines from twenty years ago.

Keep your Google friends close
As if to confirm Prof. Vaidhyanathan’s worst fears, Google has just launched a new social networking style +1 button. This innocent-looking icon allows users to tag web pages and recommend them to their “Google friends”. Eventually, Google may use +1 data to personalize user searches. So if all your friends Like, sorry, +1 the same site it’ll get ranked higher in your search results.

Unlike Prof. Vaidhyanathan I can see the appeal of personalized, localized crowd-based search. Friends are less likely to spam you with fake results. Friends can be trusted to provide you with reliable information (well usually, unless you’re asking things like: “do I look fat in this?” or “do I really need another beer?”)

Genius +1
The question is: will friend-centered search teach people anything they don’t already know? Prof. Vaidhyanathan doesn’t think so. He predicts that “the knowledge web” will eventually get taken over by smaller specialist engines like Wolfram Alpha.

It’s a depressing vision. But what if Google could combine the trustworthiness of friend groups with the depth of crowdsourced expert knowledge?

Crowdsourced Q&A services Quora and Stack Overflow already tap into a community of experts who provide reliable answers to user questions. Answers are voted up or down by the community. On Stack Overflow, experts can also build their reputations with awards, points and badges.

Imagine if Google +1 incorporated elements of this kind of crowdsourcing. Specialists could +1 articles and sites in their subject area and make them visible to the whole web. An expert cardiologist could rank his favorite heart transplant journals. Siva Vaidhyanathan could flag his all time top corporate-responsibility papers. (Of course, Google would have to work out a way of registering and verifying the experts to prevent spammers.)

The web is a collection of human knowledge – global and local, personal and universal. A search engine that was as reliable as a close friend and as knowledgeable as a Harvard professor would be awesome. But while we wait I’m sticking with Google.

  • Mika Peltola


  • Ferruccio

    Great post. I’m not sure +1 will be used only to serve personalized searches based on what your friends +1ed. From what Google said, it looks like +1 is gonna be a measurable way for Google (who doesn’t have access to Facebook like button data) to apply a social layer to search and not only rely on links or tweets for judging how popular a page is. This means that you will probably be more likely to see a page who got a lot of +1, regardless of the fact that some people you don’t know +1ed that page. So it’s really a way to expand search, not restrict it.nnAnd also, I don’t understand why it’s bad that search engines incorporate more of u201cthe recent over the classic, the local over the global, the personal over the universal.u201d. It would be easier for Google to favor the classic over the recent (and so on). But by rewarding more and more local, personalized and fresh content Google is actually helping smaller players with less funds to go against the big corporations. And that’s why there it’s hard for media companies to just buy their way into a market: because local, relevant information can still win against authority based on money.

  • Karthik

    When I want brainy answers, I use Wolfram Alpha ( nIt even tells me the answer to the ultimate question of life, universe and everything!

  • marko

    Nice post Ville. I haven’t read that book yet but in the various reviews I’ve scanned…. I think its general conclusions are way off the mark. You nailed the reasons why in your post.nnMy perspective….nGoogle’s fundamental challenge is that their whole model is based on relationships between links. Facebook’s fundamental model is based on relationships between people. Both are trying to converge towards “humanrithms”, but Facebook has the momentum and user data. Google should be nervous.nnThat said, I think a purely social approach to search is not the whole answer either; it creates an echo chamber. New tools must have the potential to expand our scope of information, while also helping us better find the signal in the noise. Yes, I’m biased, but I think the next leap forward will come from an approach that focuses on personalization (using the elements above as ingredients) and wraps that in a totally new user experience.nnYou can sense the whole “discovery” paradigm is in a speed-wobble right now… exciting experiments are emerging… looking forward to what the future holds :) nnNote: Hat tip to TheNextWeb on the term “humanrithms”…n