The future of search. The Times (UK), 12 June 2009. Essay by James Harkin

The Times (London)

In the space of a single decade, internet search has changed the way we look at the world beyond recognition. Google has become our binoculars and our window on to the net. With that blinking cursor on our internet search box only a button away and ever ready to unleash a geyser of electronic information, no longer do we have to go into any encounter wholly unprepared. Sometimes we rely on it too much. A survey of 100 American business recruiters in 2006 revealed that four fifths of them now resort to search engines when hiring new staff. More than a third admitted that they had rejected a candidate on the basis of unverified information that they found on the net.

While search is good, then, it is far from perfect. As I was writing this article, I googled three people. First there was Giulia Ricci, a promising young artist who I was to meet for coffee later in the day; then I typed in Matthew Taylor, the former think-tanker and director of the RSA, because I wanted to read his blog. The last person I looked up was Shaun Phillips, about two minutes after he rang me to commission this piece. First place in the list of blue links Google sent me for “Giulia Ricci” came an Italian porn star who looked nothing like the woman I was meeting.

Among the hits for “Matthew Taylor”, Google was touting information on a pop singer, a Liberal Democrat MP, a footballer and a Guardian journalist. Worse luck, the “Shaun Phillips” who works at The Times had been ousted by an American football player for the San Diego Chargers. Had I been “feeling lucky”, in Google’s whacky terminology, and plumped for the first hits that came my way on each, I would have come away with information about an Italian porn star, a US football player and a Liberal Democrat MP. This frustrating gap that exists between where we want to go on the net and what we get from Google is leading to some interesting new challenges to Google’s overwhelming superiority in the search business, and throwing up fruitful ideas about the future of the system.

Ten years ago, Google arrived like a breath of fresh air. Unlike the big beasts that came before it, Google was the first company really to understand that we wanted to navigate our own way around the internet rather than stare at a showy “portal”, and it rapidly became our trusted guide.

The company’s mission-statement committed it to organising the world’s information and rendering it accessible and useful. That, however, was easier said than done. Google’s worthy ambition of digitising all the world’s books, for example, is a complex and daunting project that will probably take many decades, even it if isn’t scuppered before then by the worries of everyone from authors to advertising agencies. In the meantime, what Google does so well with its search technology is to bring everyone within range of the net into a f luid and chaotic global conversation – one that is constantly refreshed by the questions and opinions of every one of them. Think about what Google does. Like most search engines, it works by trawling the web, taking regular digital snapshots of what’s out there, indexing it and rendering it accessible to anyone. That, however, still leaves its engineers with the job of ranking the information that Google has made its business to serve up. Though it protects its ranking technology as intently as Coca-Cola protects its recipe, its most essential ingredient is its PageRank algorithm.

PageRank stems from the clever idea of Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, that a good way of calculating the import of any web page was not via any objective criteria but by counting how many people were pointing at it from their own websites and then measuring the weight and worth of all those pointing links. Weighing up, in other words, a piece of information by seeing how many other people found it worthwhile. But that wasn’t all. As Google’s search technology became more sophisticated, it enabled its users to feed back into Google’s information loop their own opinion of the information that Google sent their way. So every time we choose from the list of hits that Google serves up in response to our search, we are helping it to rank the information of our peers, and that information is used to track the best destinations on the web.

When we use Google we are tapping into a conversation between millions of people on the net – canvassing what other people think and why they think it before we make our decision. Some of Google’s users will trust the first source of information that it gives them. Most, however, will take the trouble to browse through two or three. When Google decided to measure the worth of a piece of information by looking at how many other people found it valuable, it sowed into its operation a feedback loop that helped traffic flow around the web much more quickly and smoothly. As a result, it gobbled up about four fifths of the global search business and became one of the richest companies on Earth. Google is worth roughly £100 billion.

The open, collaborative way that Google uses us to organise its material works wonders at finding interesting nuggets of information, but it is far from ideal. Sometimes, for example, the signposts it sends us are topsy-turvy. When I interviewed Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, for my last book, Cyburbia, he bemoaned the way in which Google’s PageRank system, and others that followed in its wake, are becoming increasingly skewed by search-engine “optimisation” firms. These buy up links from an open market to route traffic in the direction of their clients.

There can, of course, be pleasure in the chase. Taking wrong turnings on the net can lead us to information that we didn’t even know we were looking for and can encour-agour natural curiosity and thirst for discovery. In April 2007, a survey concluded that two thirds of British internet users spent time “wilfing” (“what was I looking for?”) while hopping around on the internet. A quarter of those surveyed admitted to whiling away 30 per cent or more of their time on the internet in this way, the equivalent of spending one working day every fortnight lost in an electronic reverie. In the past five years, many of us have become more impatient about getting exactly where we want to go to on the net. While Google keeps tweaking its algorithm and the mass of material that is on the net has grown to almost infinite proportions, the fundamental technology that powers its searches hasn’t changed a great deal. Google makes us work for our information – it turns us into map-makers, tracing relationships and assembling connections in the electronic ether to see whether it adds up to anything we can rely on. It is all too easy to get lost.

So what are the alternatives to Google? Recently the company has been joined by a range of different search engines, which claim to outdo Google either on accuracy and speed or both.

At the austere end of the search business came WolframAlpha, launched last month and named after the Brit-isphysicist Stephen Wolfram. It promises to be an “answer engine” for researchers, returning rock-solid data in response to statistical or factual queries by scanning only authoritative databases. It throws up impressive-looking spreadsheets for results and can tell you a great deal about the properties of potassium or the performance of a publicly listed company. Wolfram is in its infancy – thus far the databases at its command are limited to scientific, political, economic and historical data, but it does offer a step towards the goal of what internet technicians such as Berners-Lee call a “semantic web”, where search engines are capable of understanding plain English and taking us more precisely to our destination. Google is also feeling the pinch among those who want immediate access to the kind of electronic chatter, or “buzz”, at which its constantly bubbling PageRank algorithm has traditionally excelled.

Last month Larry Page admitted that his company was falling behind in the race to publish immediate and “realtime” information to Twitter, the latest online social networking craze. Whereas Google’s vast library of information can take whole days to index and to update, Twitter, which allows users to express themselves or forward snippets of news in 140 characters or less, allows anyone to search through its constantly rolling mass of “tweets” almost instantaneously.

Then there is Microsoft’s latest attempt to make up ground on Google in the rapidly expanding search business. Bing, which was launched in the US last week and is now being reworked for the UK, reportedly stands for “Bing is not Google” and takes its onomatopoeic name from the sound of something being found very quickly. It has its work cut out. Bing is designed to replace its MSN Live Search, which services only 4 per cent of UK searches com-parewith Google’s 84 per cent share. Bing has intuitive new technology, which claims to stand a better chance of finding what its users really want rather than bogging them down in links. It promises to be a “decision engine”, giving its users access to targeted information rather than a list of random web pages and the opportunity to see previews of web pages or videos with having to click through into them.

In the $ 100 million ad campaign that accompanied its ”

launch, Microsoft made much of its own research that suggests that 30 per cent of searchers abandon their information hunt dissatisfied with what they receive. In one of its ads intended to mimic the experience of using Google, a woman goes into a clinic saying: “I’m having this back pain.” The receptionist says: “Back-packing? Back-toschool? Johann Sebastian Bach?” So can Bing, WolframApha and Twitter loosen Google’s iron hold on the search business? There is good reason to doubt some of their claims: the world of internet search is littered with cocky also-rans, and all of Microsoft’s previous attempts to refresh its search technology have ended in tears. In a “blind test” site set up by a Microsoft employee last weekend, which showed results from Google, Bing and Yahoo! and invited passers-by to pick the best, Bing sprinted into an early lead before falling slightly behind Google a day later.

Microsoft, however, is resigned to playing a long game. “The major search engines were developed over a decade ago, and we believe the category is still in its infancy,” Paul Stoddart, its head of UK research, says. “It’s important to challenge and evolve the search market … there is much more that people can and should expect.”

Google has one of the most powerful brands in the world at its disposal and it will not be easy to prise people away from a company whose name is synonymous with searching the net. One thing is clear: the technology is improving and the whiff of change is in the air. The problem for its competitors is that, since the company has been busy spending its money to accumulate more reliable databases than anyone else thanks to Google Books, Google Maps, Google Earth and all its other projects, the next “Google” is very likely to come from the company itself.

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