I was reading Techmeme today, and I noticed an LA Times article about RushmoreDrive, described on its About Us page as “a first-of-its-kind search engine for the Black community.” My first reaction, blogged by others already, was that this idea was dumb and racist. In fact, it took some work to find positive commentary about RushmoreDrive.
But I’ve learned from the way the blogosphere handled the Cuil launch not to trust anyone who evaluates a search engine without having tried it, myself included. My wife and I have been the only white people at Amy Ruth’s and the service was as gracious as the chicken and waffles were delicious; I decided I’d try my luck on a search engine not targeted at my racial profile.
The search quality is solid, comparable to that of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. In fact, the site looks a lot like a re-skinning (no pun intended) of Ask.com, a corporate sibling of IAC-owned RushmoreDrive. Like Ask.com, RushmoreDrive emphasizes search refinement through narrowing and broadening refinements.
What I find ironic is that the whole controversy about racial bias in relevance ranking reveals the much bigger problem–that relevance ranking should not be a black box (ok, maybe this time I’ll take responsibility for the pun). I’ve been beating this drum at The Noisy Channel ever since I criticized Amit Singhal for Google’s lack of transparency. I think that sites like RushmoreDrive are inevitable if search engines refuse to cede more control of search results to users.
I don’t know how much information race provides as prior to influence statistical ranking approaches, but I’m skeptical that the effects are useful or even noticeable beyond a few well-chosen examples. I’m more inclined to see RushmoreDrive as a marketing ploy by the folks at IAC–and perhaps a successful one. I doubt that Google is running scared, but I think this should be a wake-up call to folks who are convinced that personalized relevance ranking is the end goal of user experience for search engines.