Friday 18 July 2008

Categorically Up the Creek: - What's Wrong with Google?

I just picked up a new(ish) telephone book and I said to myself - Silly me. The Internet is so much quicker. I’m an Internet guy. I can do this. So I went to Google instead.

I looked up Indian Restaurants Dublin because I had a babysitter for Saturday, and I got a list of all of the services which mentioned Indian and Restaurant, and Dublin in the order of who’d visited them most often. Interspersed with actual restaurants which provided Indian cuisine was an encyclopaedia reference for India, a Bollywood site and a bloody map of India. Then some joker had written a site slagging off Indian restaurants. I gave up and made a coffee and a sandwich.
I then said to myself. Silly boy. You’re not using it right. So, I looked up Java, the country west of Krakatoa (not east as in the movie title). Another disaster! In order of who’d visited them most, or linked to them most I got hundreds of sites on the software language, called Java, some coffee beans, another software called ‘Java Beans’ more encyclopaedia references and more maps, some programmers ones too that didn’t look much like the Island, near Krakatoa.
I then thought… wait a second. I’m stupid. I need to go the country search engine. There wasn’t one. What about the Restaurant in my region database… but Google doesn’t supply one.

That’s the problem. The list. As there are many, many more websites in the world every month. One for every company really and most things people talk about too. But Internet users are still going to Google and looking briefly down the list, which in all fairness is so much better than the old search engines we used, but it’s still just a list. And no one goes to the second page. (Well, some do rarely). All the categories that might be something to do with the keywords you put into the search box, in order of site size, the state of the site SEO, the links into the site (and out), the blogs associated with it, and a host of other algorithmic magical measures like code to keyword density and other bits are included and then Google pop out a relevance statistic that says… ‘this is what you were really looking for, with the two words you input…and here’s some other categories you may have been looking for. There you go.’

So, it’s my fault. I should have gone all Boolean – adding And and Not and But and other words to filter my search, and I should have added more and more words. But, eventually, you are writing and correcting and limiting and filtering till the cows come home, when you could just pick up the Yellow Pages, go to Restaurants, go to Indian, and glance through the 5 relevant listings that aren’t take-aways and pick one near you. You can’t go wrong really can you. And if there isn’t one in my area, it’s not that I haven’t put in the right boolean definitions and specifications, or that they haven’t SEOed their site, or that they have been banned for black hat coding… or that they don’t have a site (it’s a restaurant after all, they specialize in food). I’m also unlikely to get a map, distractingly, of India, or an encyclopedia page… or any of that. Because, the book, the Yellow Pages, has something called ‘Contents’ and something else called ‘Index’. Simple really. Genius. Why didn’t Google think of it?

In short, the world’s most popular search engine isn’t helping me, or letting me help it. It’s chucking in all of the categories in its index into one super clever list…. And I don’t really care if it’s searched 1.5 kazzillion sites in 0.5 of a milisecond… I’m still too impatient to go to page two. People are stupid. What can I say.

Time for balance. I really really really love Google, because I really love the web, and it’s one of the best things to happen to the web and computers ever in my opinion, on a par with the invention of DOS, or TCP/IP, or HPPT, or HTML. The Google link algorithm is right up there with them. And the company itself has revolutionised advertising for ever, and this promises to continue with their new optimisation tools. If I ever get a cat, I’ll call it Google. Google is well cool… but we, silly human’s need more help than the magical algorithm can possible imagine or compute. We need to be allowed to help the great Google do its good work. We need to be able to steer the behemoth. To be the captain of the ocean liner. We don’t need the machine to think for us all the time, foisting its ideas down our page one throats. We need to be able to choose, just a little bit, and give over more information more easily. I want my search engine to be more like when I’m phoning dial a directory, and saying something like.. ‘it’s an Indian restaurant, in my town. I don’t know what it’s called’ and the nice girl says ‘here’s a list of them. Is it Tandoor? Chaian… Sindar?’ and I choose. The search engine chat on the other hand would continue with me saying… ‘no, my town, in Ireland, not the one in Wisconsin with the same name. No, I don’t want a map, or driving directions. I know my town, I just can’t remember the name of the blood restaurant. I was there last week. It’s called Rajpuri or something. Sindar was a character in a film. That really interesting, but totally irrelevant. I’m hungry. I need a restaurant. A history of Indian restaurants you say? No thanks. Actually… Feck off. I’ll just bloody walk and won’t book. It’ll be quicker!’

But, there is a search engine which tries to do this. I think it’s going in the right direction and I think others, even Google, will have to follow. The site is an old one, and it’s changed its name recently. I used to sillily be called ‘Ask Jeeve’s’ (what a funny joke that was), but is now simply called ‘Ask’. Better! When I put Indian restaurant into Ask, I still get lots of categories, but they are in little boxes or along the side bar, so I can see them. I still see I can have maps, encyclopaedia bits, recipes… all sorts of information, but I can now see what categories these sites are in. They’re not in a single bloody list running to 50 pages. In Ask, I can then click on the appropriate category, and it's filtered. (Just like picking restaurants in Yellow Pages).

Why am I talking about Ask. Well, because I was reminded of it recently when visiting the new The programming behind Ireland’s newest, biggest and best search engine ever, and it’s similar to Ask, not Google. And, I really like it. I think it will work. I think it’s cool. reminds me of what aimed for in 1998 years ago, with its little Bebo style publishing tool, and super categorisation system but is doing it better, and it’s the right time for Ireland and for the state of social and net development. And, best of all, it’s automatic. Clear categorisation, great professional content… all organised, all neatly laid out. This is something you can’t see from the front page of, especially if you are looking for, but as soon as you search, there you go. It doesn’t matter how many pages or sites are generated in Ireland, the findings for this search engine won’t be cluttered, ever. Because they are categorised.

We humans need categories, because we have too much stuff called the same thing. We don’t have category words in our language (or symbols as with Japanese). This is why we have a Dewey Decimal system for libraries and IBAN numbers, and that’s just for books. We need categorization for everything humans think about, need, talk about, make, say, eat, lust after, go to… all of it. It’s a classification nightmare. Too many categories to think of, but I think it’s what the net needs.
Great categorisation.

You see, when I’m honest, I don’t there is a chance in hell that any mathematical algorithm can keep pace with all the information on the web. I believe that the term bandied around time and again in the late 90s –‘information overload’ needs to a reintroduction. I think that shortly, very shortly, humans will notice that they’re missing out by seeing the web through the blinkers offered by Google page one, and some pay per click ads, which, by the way, are getting a bit too snappy and salesy and generic for my liking… (Though, when managed well these do work, and are a super efficient spend. No doubt about it. The proof is there.)

So currently 99% of some age groups use Google almost every day. The reason is that Google is the best search engine. But, the job isn’t done. Much more to do… and hopefully, Google will get more like Like Ask. Categorically.
And as a happy conclusion to this barrage of frustration I looked up Indian restaurant in my home town on Bingo. There they were. Perfect. And the one I was looking for. And then I even got the menu and the prices for each dish on indexed by the site, the phone number, and the maps... all perfectly relevant, neatly laid out, and more than I could ever have hoped, or got, from Google or Yellow Pages for that matter. Howsat! I’ll so be back to

Oh, and as a PS, when I showed Mrs. Kelly the map, ‘we’ decided ‘we’d’ prefer to eat Italian! The search engine that can include woman-think into its algorithm will be seriously popular, but mus remain the stuff of science fiction for now. We live in hope.

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