As Chief Scientist of Endeca, I spend a lot of my time explaining to people why they should not be satisfied with an information seeking interface that only offers them keyword search as an input mechanism and a ranked list of results as output. I tell them about query clarification dialogs, faceted navigation, and set analysis. More broadly, I evangelize exploratory search and human computer information retrieval as critical to addressing the inherent weakness of conventional ranked retrieval. If you haven’t heard me expound on the subject, feel free to check out this slide show on Is Search Broken?.
But today I wanted to put my ideology aside and ask the the simple question: Is Google good enough? Here is a good faith attempt to make the case for the status quo. I’ll focus on web search, since, as I’ve discussed before on this blog, enterprise search is different.
1) Google does well enough on result quality, enough of the time.
While Google doesn’t publish statistics about user satisfaction, it’s commonplace that Google usually succeeds in returning results that users find relevant. Granted, so do all of the major search engines: you can compare Google and Yahoo graphically at this site. But the question is not whether other search engines are also good enough–or even whether they are better. The point is that Google is good enough.
2) Google doesn’t support exploratory search. But it often leads you to a tool that does.
The classic instance of this synergy is when Google leads you to a Wikipedia entry. For example, I look up Daniel Kahneman on Google. The top results is his Wikipedia entry. From there, I can traverse links to learn about his research areas, his colleagues, etc.
3) Google is a benign monopoly that mitigates choice overload.
Many people, myself includes, have concerns about Google’s increasing role in mediating our access to information. But it’s hard to ignore the upside of a single portal that gives you access to everything in one place: web pages, blogs, maps, email, etc, And it’s all “free”–at least in so far as ad-supported services can be said to be free.
In summary, Google sets the bar pretty high. There are places where Google performs poorly (e.g., shopping) or doesn’t even try to compete (e.g., travel). But when I see the series of companies lining up to challenge Google, I have to wonder how many of them have identified and addressed clear consumer needs for which Google isn’t good enough as a solution. Given Google’s near-monopoly in web search, parity or even incremental advantage isn’t enough.