Alta Google?

Is Google about to topple from its perch as king of search? There’s a lot being written lately about how Google search results are being gamed to promote Google products and interests. What I’m seeing day to day is a general “junking up” of search results where the first page of search results are only vaguely relevant. This of course is a classic “follow the money” situation. Google is first and foremost an advertising company, and increasingly the results they’re serving up overtly remind me of this fact. It’s a dangerous game for them, as the web is littered with the carcasses of once-mighty services that suddenly fell out of favour by overstepping some line or other. As Steven Levy (via: @daringfireball) writes:

The company has spent its entire corporate life protecting the integrity of its search product. When writing In the Plex, I learned that the secret behind Google’s somewhat bland design was that if Google looked like it was designed by a machine, users would implicitly understand that Google search itself was unpolluted by strong opinions. Google meticulously positioned its flagship product as a neutral judge of what was relevant to the user.

I still use google search quite a bit for mundane things, like looking up how to spell a word or finding simple facts that I just can’t remember. I default to Google partly out of habit and partly due to the tight integration with Chrome, my current browser of choice. Increasingly though, I’m turning to other alternatives when looking for more tightly targeted information. Often when I’m trying to ferret out an obscure reference to an esoteric material or process I get much better results from Bing or DuckDuckGo. These search engines seem to be more highly tuned to relevance of results, versus whatever it is that Google is optimized for.

I had an experience lately that confirmed to me once and for all that there’s something funny going on with Google search results. I wrote a post recently that described a beta web project that I knew had not yet been widely publicized, in fact the only direct reference I could find on the web was on the graphic designer’s portfolio site. I therefore knew that the only detailed reference that existed on the web was on my blog. So I tried some searches a day later to see what would come up. Searching for the phrase ‘research@concordia’ on google turned up only the graphic designer’s portfolio page buried two-thirds of the way down the first page, I stopped looking for my own post after the fifth page. Putting the phrase in quotes got my post onto the second page about half way down. At no time did Google offer up a link to the actual Research@Concordia site.

Moving on to Bing, searching the same phrase, the actual beta site was the top hit, and my post about the site was the third. Oddly, the graphic designer’s portfolio page did not show up at all. When I tried the same search on DuckDuckGo, my post was the top hit, but it did not turn up either the actual Research@Concordia site, or the graphic designer’s portfolio page. Adding quotes to the search delivered 3 hits — the site, my post and an unrelated news release.

These results obviously prove little — clearly nobody should base their choice of search engine on how well it indexes this crummy little blog. But it did confirm to me that if the information that you seek is not likely to be found on a highly trafficked web site, Google may never deliver what you’re looking for. That’s often the kind of thing I’m looking for, so I think I’ll be using Bing and DuckDuckGo in preference to Google a lot more in the future.

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