The Noisy Channel


Is Google Good Enough?

August 5th, 2008 · 11 Comments · General

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.

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel Tunkelang // Aug 8, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Due to technical difficulties with Blogger, I’ve re-posted this, and it may appear as a duplicate in your feeds.

  • 2 Ranjit Mathoda // Aug 8, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    When Google came into the market search results sucked. It’s a lot easier to displace the dominant competitors if something really sucks. Now that search results are much better, sufficient that most people can find what they’re searching for most of the time within a few seconds or at most minutes, it’s very hard for another company to come along and displace Google. It’s probably a better strategy to ask what really still sucks with Google’s solutions?

    The companies that have tackled this problem seem to think the answer is natural language search rather than keyword search or the visual display of contextual information. The former strikes me as untrue unless you’re talking about voice recognition on a mobile device; keywords are more efficient to type and most people have gotten really used to using them. The latter seems like an insufficiently improved solution. But whoever does successfully answer the question “what does Google suck at?” will reap tremendous rewards.

  • 3 Quick Bites: Is Search Really 90% Solved? // Sep 19, 2008 at 11:48 am

    […] agree with Michael that search isn’t even close to being solved yet. I’ve criticized the way many web search start-ups–and even the giants Yahoo and Microsoft–are going […]

  • 4 Rob Young // Sep 22, 2008 at 6:53 am

    I can’t seem to hit the Where Google Isn’t Good Enough post so I’ll comment here. I don’t think Google does well enough with events.
    Searches like ‘comedy events in the West End of London this Thursday’ or ‘folk festivals in Cornwall in June’ that provide comprehensive, easy to navigate results just aren’t available.

  • 5 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 22, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Rob, I agree, and I’ve seen events to be a popular area for vertical search.

    The Where Google Isn’t Good Enough post is the one after this one:

  • 6 Information Seeking for the Political Process | The Noisy Channel // Oct 3, 2008 at 10:30 am

    […] measure would be suspect, given the adversarial nature of the political process. What may be good enough for casual web search is surely inadequate when policy decisions are at stake. I see the […]

  • 7 Where Google Isn’t Good Enough | The Noisy Channel // Oct 4, 2008 at 5:22 pm

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  • 8 Curt Monash Analyzes the Text Analytics Market | The Noisy Channel // Dec 29, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    […] His observations about the web search market are spot-on: the current attention is on transactional queries (see Andrei Broder’s classic paper on the taxonomy of web search for an explanation of navigational, informational, and transactional queries), and web search generally is dominated by the dynamics of adversarial information retrieval. Depressing (to me, at least), but accurate. He does see potential future with better interfaces, but he asks, “how good does the technology have to get before people care?” My sentiments exactly. […]

  • 9 Is Search Really 90% Solved? | The Noisy Channel // Feb 5, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    […] agree with Michael that search isn’t even close to being solved yet. I’ve criticized the way many web search start-ups–and even the giants Yahoo and Microsoft–are going […]

  • 10 The Sultans of Speed | The Noisy Channel // Feb 18, 2009 at 10:24 am

    […] to incrementally outdo them on their own turf. For the use cases it addresses, Google is surely good enough. And damn […]

  • 11 Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Post | The Noisy Channel // Jun 14, 2009 at 11:52 pm

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