JW on Tech

James Whittaker is a technology executive focused on making the web a better place for users and developers. He is a former Googler, former professor and former startup founder. Follow him on Twitter @docjamesw.

Why I hate search

Why I hate search

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The word 'search' is a negative word. It fairly reeks of loss and effort. You lose your car keys and you search for them. Your pet runs away and you search for her. Having to search implies loss. It implies effort. Search is a means to an end. You search to rescue; you seek to find. There is little that is pleasant about the process itself. The only time to feel good about a search is when it ends, successfully.

Now, let's consider those car keys for a moment. You lose them once and you search for them. Lose them again and you repeat the search. Lose them enough times and you'll get better at finding them because you'll know where you tend to leave them. That's the thing about search, you can redo it from scratch or you can pay attention and not have to search so much. And your lost pet? Lose a beloved pet once and you are unlikely to lose her again. Not because you've gotten better at search, but because you now take pains not to lose her a second time. You can be stupid about search if you like, or you can be thoughtful and more organized so you decrease your reliance on it. You don't have to search for things that are not lost.

We could do the same thing online, be thoughtful and organized, but we don't. We start from scratch each time. We search for things we've already found.

The problem with Internet search is that being stupid about it is profitable. The more ugly blue links you serve up, the more time users have to click on ads. Serve up bad results and the user must search again and this doubles the number of sponsored links you get paid for. Why be part of the solution when being part of the problem pays so damn well? It's 2012 and we are still typing search queries into a text box. Now you know why, a 'find engine' swims in the shallow end of the profit pool. Is it any surprise that technology such as Siri came from a company that doesn't specialize in search? (Where do you place an ad in a Siri use case?)

There's no more reason to expect search breakthroughs from Google than there is to expect electric car batteries to be made by Exxon.

We can do better. We've been searching for over a decade. We know every place possible where the online equivalent of car keys are found. We know where our online pet is, always. We know so many things about the world that no longer need to be served up as search "results." (Results indeed! If users ever wake up and divorce their search engine, the "results" page is likely to be exhibit A in the separation hearing.)

Search, my friends, is broken. Finding things has become secondary to monetizing the search process. Fixing this situation is not in the best interest of the incumbents. Which, actually, is all well and good because the fix will need a more web-wide effort anyway. The companies that own the data sources, the companies that ingest, store and conflate that data, the myriad small development shops that do interesting things with the data, the cleverness of the people who curate the data and the power of crowdsourced know-how need to come together and make search ... better? No, not better, irrelevant.

Search is dead. The web doesn't need it and neither do we.

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  • If you dont know something then you will have to search :) There is no other way

  • i don't know about this

  • Like: [effective search technology] "has become secondary to monetizing the search process".

    Disagree: "Search is dead. The web doesn't need it and neither do we."

    If you know something I don't, please tell. In the meantime, search is just about the only thing I use the web for. The web without search would be like the U.S.A. without roads.

    Not saying I'm not open to a good national rail program, but it aint here.

  • "Search is dead.", Are you crazy?

    "The web doesn't need it and neither do we.", Right... Hmm... I guess that answers my question then.

  • Interesting. Was my comment removed because I linked to my blog post? We seem to be discouraging discourse on this topic. Why not just close off all comments?

    EDITOR: YES, your link 404'd.

  • I once told some search executives that Google and Bing TOGETHER have less than 6% of what people want to FIND - things to buy. They have become stepping stones to Find Engines: The top 3 advertising verticals, neither Google nor Bing are players: Automotive (you use autoTrader.com), Real Estate (Realtor.com or other), Retail (you use the stores site 'cos you need to filter search).

  • good article  and i respect to your idea

  • What a whole bunch of nonsense. I've worked at Google and they take search quality very seriously. In fact, the search quality guys are not allowed to talk to the ads guys to avoid exactly this type of influence.

    Sure money matters, and there is an "apparent" conflict. But in reality, the better the search results are, the more likely that users will use the search engine, which leads to more $$$. There is plenty of literature that demonstrates how serving poor search results will actually result in less ad revenue.

    So James, being a former Googler, you should know this very well. Why did you decide to misrepresent the facts?

  • I think we will always have some sort of search.  How do we discover things we never had in the first place?  I had to 'search' to find my house and 'search' to find my car before I bought them.  This applies to information as well.   Unfortunately, we aren't born knowing everything.  Do you mean we need to re-think and/or redefine search?

  • What do you think is next, as a web futurist?

  • oddly enough, having used bing on windows phone since january 2011 and on the desktop since last summer, i can no longer stand it because google almost always returns better search results (i.e. what i was expecting to find).

    then again, i may be using search in the wrong way, because, to be honest, it's still essential to me and the people around me.

  • My significant other purchased a new iPhone. With it came Siri, a fresh new toy. Push the button and ask Siri the meaning of live. Ooooh ahhh, answers a bit better than Eliza emerge. It was a novelty that lasted about 2 weeks and is now almost forgotten.

    She started using Internet search engines years ago to find web sites and she still does today. If search is dead, then it must be the walking dead as it continues shambling forward into the future alongside the masses that utilize it daily.

  • Search is broken. Google requires 6 courses each 50 minutes long to do it right: www.google.com/.../powersearching.html.

  • search is a pain in the neck!

  • I don't have time to search let me get registered and on with house work.  

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