net.wars: Google, I want a divorce
by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 10 September 2010
Jamie: You're dating your mailman?
Lisa: Why not? He comes to see me every day. He's always bringing me things.
Jamie: Mail. He brings you mail.
Lisa: Don't judge him!
- from Mad About You,
Season 3, Episode 1, "Escape From New York".
Two years ago, when Google turned ten years old I was called into a BBC studio to talk about the company. Why, I was asked, did people hate Microsoft so much? Would people ever hate Google, too? I said, I think, that because we're only aware of Microsoft when its software fails, our primary impression of the company is frustration: why does this software hate me?
Whereas, I went on to say, to most people Google is like the mailman: it's a nice Web site that keeps bringing you things you really want. Yes, Street View (privacy), Google Books (copyright), and other controversies, but search results! Right out of the oven!
This week I can actually say it: I hate Google. There was the annoying animated Buckyball. There was the enraging exploding animation. And now there's Google Instant – which I can turn off, to be sure, now I can't turn off Google's suggestions. Pause to scream.
I know life is different for normal people, and that people who can't touch type maybe actually like Google's behaving like a long-time spouse who finishes all their sentences, especially if they cannot spell correctly. But neither Instant nor suggestions is a help when your typical search is a weird mix of constraints intended to prod Google into tossing out hits on obscure topics. And you know what else isn't a help? Having stuff change before your eyes and disrupt the brain-fingers continuum. Changing displays, animations, word suggestions all distract you from what you're typing and make it hard to concentrate.
A different problem is the one posed by personalized results: journalists need to find the stuff they – and lots of other people – don't know about. Predictive and personalized results typically will show you the stuff you already do know about, which is fine if you're trying to find that guy who fixed your garage door that time but terrible if what you're trying to do is put together new information in new ways (like focus groups, as Don Draper's character said in the recent Mad Men episode "The Rejected".)
There are a lot of things Google could do that would save me – and millions of other people – more time than Instant. The company could get expunge more of the link farms and useless aggregator shopping sites from its results. Intelligence could be better deployed for disaggregation - this Wendy Grossman or that one? I'd benefit from having the fade-in go away; it always costs me a few seconds.
There are some other small nuisances that also waste my time. On the News and some other pages, for example, you can't right-click on a URL and copy/paste it into a story because a few years ago doing that started returning an enormously long Google-adulterated URL. Simply highlighting and copying the URL into Word puts it in weird fonts you have to change. So the least slow way is to go to the page – which is very nice for the page but you're on deadline. And why can't Google read the page's date of last alteration (at least on static pages) and include that in the search listing? The biggest time-waster for me is having to plough through acres of old stuff because there's no way to differentiate it from the recent material. I also don't like the way the new Images search pages load. You would be this fussy, too, if you spent an hour or two a day on the site.
Lauren Weinstein has turned up some other, more serious, problems with Google Instant and the way it "thinks". Of course, it's still in beta, we all know this. Even though Yahoo! says hey, we had that back in 2005. (And does anyone else think the mention of "intellectual property" in that blog post sounds ominous?) Search Engine Watch has more detail (and a step-by-step critique; it's SEW's commentators' opinions that Yahoo! did not go ahead with its live offering because it had insufficient appetite for product risk – and insufficient infrastructure to support it.
So, for me personally the upshot is that I'm finally, after 11 years, in the market for a replacement search engine. Yahoo! is too cluttered. Ask.com's "question of the day" annoys me because, again, it's distracting. Altavista I abandoned gratefully (clutter!) in 1998 even though it invented the Babelfish. Dogpile has a stupid name, is hideous, and has a horoscope button on the front page. Webcrawler doesn't quick-glance differentiate its sponsored links. Cuil has too few results on a page and no option to increase them. Of course, mostly I want not to have to change.
Perhaps the most likely option is the one I saw recommended on Slashdot: Google near-clone DuckDuckGo, which seems to have a good attitude toward privacy and a lot of nifty shortcuts. I don't really love the shading in and out as you mouse over results, but I love that you can click anywhere in the shading to go to the page. I don't like having to wait for most of the listings to load; I like to skim all 100 listings on a page quickly before choosing anything. But I have to use something. I search to live. So many options, yet none are really right. It may just be that as the main search engines increasingly compete for the mass-market they will be increasingly less fit for real research. There's an important niche here, folks.
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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).