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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  • Mr Reagan, sounds like you are coming along great with your reintegration, are you?

  • So, I shouldn't search MSDN with Bing to find out what "SQL Server Error 2012" means? Should I ask Siri? I don't get it.

    Note: I just made up that error message.

  • Great post and I can see your vision that how the internet search should work in future. However, looking at the implementation would be great too. Good one Dr. James!

  • Why is it that search engine companies, Bing included, hire hundreds of people who specialize in improving search quality?

  • For Siri, what if you can add a sponsored message like: Closest Chinese restaurant is 2 blocks away, "however I recommend you try a Thai place which's 1 block away" or general sponsored message like "I think Coca-Cola tastes great with Chinese food"


  • "Search is dead. The web doesn't need it and neither do we.", I can't agree more on this.

  • "Serve up bad results and the user must search again and this doubles the number of sponsored links you get paid for."

    One word: competition.

    Google knows that, for its users, Bing or Yahoo is only a click away. They also know that their customer's loyalty is only as strong as their last search and, once a user switches default search engine, it is *very* difficult to get them back.

  • Did you leave Google, or did you get fired? It's been a while since I saw someone this jaded.

  • Search is over, telepathy with machines is in

  • Not sure I understand. What's "Search 2.0"? Doing a 's/search/something-else/g' is just marketing, and including semi-relevant links (e.g. search for "hotels in palo alto", get a hotel widget) is just a point-release upgrade over standard search. Returning more relevant links and countering SEO techniques allows users to find what they are looking for, but again, that's just a minor upgrade.

    What's the revolution? We got from Gopher to Web Search as the amount of data got too big. Now the amount of data is (too big)^2.

    Perhaps instead of returning links to pages that might have relevant content, return the actual data from various pages, synchronized together. Basically, a "Siri" that you can ask things like, "What does SQL Server Error 2012 mean?".

  • For me Google is often more about 'discover' new source than 'find' something what I've lost. And I feel comfortable with their business model. I wouldn't pay for a premium search even if it was more accurate. Why? Because I like to make choices by myself and quite often this lower accuracy leads to nice discoveries.

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

    GOOGLE search is dead.  I have switched to DuckDuckGo.  And we DO need search because it's just impossible to Bookmark everything (have you seen the state of bookmarking? it's worse than search!) and some of us wipe our History when we shut the browser.

  • Couldn't agree more - here are my 2cents on that subject.

  •  we used to search from yellow pages and took so much time on it. search engine only useful when you know what to search for.

  • Funny, Microsoft search products suck so bad I'd use caution when pointing fingers elsewhere.

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