Supersonic Man

September 3, 2011

are search engines getting worse, not better?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 12:35 pm

I think search engines actually worked better seven years ago than they do now.

Back then, search engines worked only with words, not concepts, and didn’t pretend any different.  And if a given search didn’t narrow down to the topic you were trying to learn about, you could use word-based techniques to make it more accurate: make this word mandatory, that word optional, this one exact, that one approximate, and avoid that other one.  And it wasn’t easy for everyone, but it could work pretty well.

Nowadays, the search engines still offer those options and techniques… but THEY DON’T WORK.  They’re useless.  You still get nothing but the mass consensus idea of what is most “relevant”, which generally means that you remain inundated by exactly the kind of material that you’re trying to get past in order to reach the good stuff.  The problem is most obvious when you try to narrow a topic down to some subtopic: you just can’t get past the pages that are all about the main topic, which are probably all the stuff you already know and don’t need to see.  Instead of being dumb but neutral, google and its competitors are now just smart enough to actively thwart you.

The algorithm they use has an unintended side effect of always favoring the broadly general and vague over the detailed and specific and narrowly focused.  (This in turn has the side effect of favoring promotional fluff over criticism, which might not be unintentional.)

The long term solution is, of course, for search engines to learn to understand natural language questions, so they can know the difference between actual relevance and mere similarity of vocabulary.  But that might still be twenty years away.  In the meantime, I suggest a simple change of philosophy.  Namely: when the user goes to the trouble to make extra input to try to constrain your results — for example, adding a phrase exclusion to a previous search — then take that input seriously, dammit!  If the user took the trouble to make a search term highly specific, then treat it as highly specific, without interposing a translation phase and going “if he mentioned X, then he may have meant the related concept Y instead”.  It boils down to the same advice I feel like I end up giving for every user interface issue — it just comes down to always giving direct commands from the human user precedence over everything else, without making exceptions and excuses.  This is easy to say but sometimes hard to carry out in practice.  For instance, in desktop apps, to always give precedence to the user may mean you have to use lots of multithreading, and make lots of operations abortable when they’re half finished.  Even when it’s hardest, though, it’s always worth it — it pays off in customer satisfaction.  Nothing annoys users more than giving them a command interface, and then refusing to follow the commands they put into it.

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6 Comments »

  1. There are now a lot of people starting to notice that search quality is not improving, and may be going downhill. Just search for the terms search is getting worse and you’ll find plenty.

    Comment by Supersonic Man — July 24, 2013 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  2. As one who started out using the Mosaic browser some 20 years ago I have a lot of online experience, thank you for affirming my own experience over the last 6 or so years. I tell people that searches used to be easier and return better results (with more relevance and options) but have deteriorated in recent years and they give me a blank look.

    Comment by Eureka Stockade — December 3, 2013 @ 4:42 am | Reply

  3. […] wrote a post here a while back about how Google and other search engines seem to actually be getting less useful […]

    Pingback by getting through the Dumb Layer | Supersonic Man — June 12, 2014 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  4. It’s called ad keywords. Ever since Google used Ad Sense search engines all over jumped on the bandwagon which may be what’s keeping the real economy crash from happening or otherwise we would be in 1932 depression on steroids by now but all the ad revenue is being pumped into the economy which is just keeping it trudging along despite nothing real holding it up other then good word.

    In the early days Google and Yahoo tried to bring unique products to satisfy users though what they should’ve done was have a *pro* version of their products for business purposes such as a *Google Maps Pro* so revenue would be used to keep the free maps updated yearly.

    Other products like GMail should have a *Pro* version that the extra income would be used to make the *free* version more secured and a *PRO* version of You Tube that has ZERO advertising which would help be used to keep the free version not looking cluttered and the ads minimum without needing ad block.

    We haven’t had a real economy since the 20s actually due to a quasi government relationship from the 2nd world war that hasn’t gone away but that’s another thing.

    Comment by Kyle Hill — April 5, 2015 @ 12:12 am | Reply

    • I think the issue may go beyond the ads, but I appreciate your thoughts. There are certainly lots of other services where I wish there were a non-ad subscription model available. I loathe the advertising industry in general.

      Comment by Supersonic Man — April 5, 2015 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  5. I would gladly pay for Google Products if they were made better so they could revive free ones like Google Reader and the news thing they use to have where you could search a whole range of newspapers for both current and archived news.

    Comment by Kyle Hill — April 5, 2015 @ 12:13 am | Reply


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