ADOTAS EXCLUSIVE — I still remember the first time I used Google.
It was in early 1998, and I was sitting in my office at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. I hit the page, expecting something Yahoo!-ish, and sat there staring at a word and a box on a white page for maybe five seconds, marveling at the boldness of it. This was not white space for design’s sake. Oh no. This was a statement of confidence.
“You want the stuff? Yea, we got the stuff. Take your best shot, boy.”
I typed in “Sinatra,” and there, painted before me within milliseconds, was a list of sites related the Chairman of the Board. Even more amazing, the best ones seemed to be towards the top. I clicked around, suppressed a yelp, then returned almost in disbelief. I tried “Star Trek,” then “Ogilvy,” and finally “Troiano,” each time uncovering the fruitful bounty of the Web, each time amazed – literally, amazed – by a technology that seemed able to look inside my head, inside my soul, almost, and give me what I wanted.
The memory is still vivid for me, as is a certain nostalgia for the early days of the net, when we were all just tooling around on our Netscape browsers and Panix e-mail addresses, trying to figure it all out and explain what we’d learned to the dinosaurs who still cared about TV.
All of which is why it pains me to face the truth of 2008, which is that Google sucks. And I’m not talking about the company, or the business here. To be honest I think the accusations of evil-doing at The Goog are 1 part factual and 4 parts envy, and as for Google’s actual business, well, to quote a great film of an even earlier age, “We’re not worthy.”
No, I’m talking about google.com. About Search. About the very foundation of what is expected to be a $10 Billion industry next year, about what may be the most powerful franchise on the planet.
Why doth Google suck? Let me count the ways.
Google.com doesn’t know or care about me.
How many times have you used the Google search engine? Hundreds? Thousands? Me too. Assuming your thousands of searches are materially different than mine, why does Google give us the same answer if your next search happens to be the same as mine? Isn’t there ANYTHING they might have gleaned from their multi-year relationship with each of us, from all the time they’ve spent in intimate association with both of us since the 20th century?
The answer, of course is yes. But they don’t. They treat both of us the same, despite the fact that I’m a hyperactive Type-A male with a sci-fi obsession and food issues, and you may be a Type-B female with a celebrity jones and a shoe fetish. When we type “star” into Google, we both get the stock chart of Starent Networks first.
Odds are neither of us is particularly interested in the share price of Starent Networks ($15.30 as I write this, in case you are.) But that might not be true if, say, we arrived at Google just having examined a series of financial planning sites. Which brings us to our next issue…
Google.com doesn’t care or know about where I am.
Google lacks context. Its prioritization algorithm is for the most part absolute, meaning it can’t respond to information about where you’ve just been, or infer where you may be interested in going next. And why is that?
Google.com is ignorant of meaning.
Google is powered by machines that troll the net for character strings, not words per se, in the way we use them. It is used most often by people interested in information, concepts, or even ideas, as opposed to the unique collection and sequence of letters that form “STUPID.” See a problem?
Now, what made Google so great in the beginning was its clever way around this problem, essentially to conduct a non-stop popularity contest where it learns what people want based on the string of letters they enter. If most of the people who search “STUPID” tend to click on a page, uh, “lacking intellectual rigor,” then so be it. That link rises to the top of the query when others input the same word. A system like that only gets better the more people use it, which is what makes Google appear so unassailable.
But meaning matters, and Google’s clever algorithmic workaround has its limits, bringing us to our next issue.
Google.com is take it or leave it.
The simplicity I once marveled at has become a limitation. I give it the string of letters, it gives me the list on the left and the ads on the right. Period.
You no like? Keep scrolling, boy.
How about some dialog, Oh Great Google? A slider? A dropdown maybe? Can I get a RADIO BUTTON, for god’s sake?
No. Google seems to be saying that it knows what we really want better than we do, and that it’s not particularly interested in further clarification from us if it’s wrong, thankyouverymuchandgooddaysir.
And if all that isn’t enough to convince you the Google hegemony has it’s limitations, then think about this…
Google.com doesn’t work on the things we want more of online.
All of the above applies to its limitations in the cataloging and prioritization of textual information. For the streaming video, music files, flash thingys and AJAX widgets that comprise a larger and larger share of our online media consumption, Google.com isn’t even in the game.
The illuminating insult-du-jour at my company is “Pagethinker.” A pagethinker is someone who hasn’t made the leap from thinking about user interfaces as pages of HTML delivered by single servers to the rich, responsive, interactive interfaces often embedded in browser experiences dynamically assembled from servers scattered across the globe. Think one way and you get PowerPoint.
Think another, and SlideRocket comes into being, with all the rich, networked features the under-30 crowd expects from an online application. (This is why Microsoft is even more screwed than Google, but I digress.)
Google.com is a pagethinker, in the sense that it is largely ignorant of information that is not textual, not embedded in the quaint HTML, which brought forth the Web in the days when Forrest Gump ruled the box office. And in the long run, they may be damned by it.
So who can do better?
What’s that? Only if someone else can do better, you say? Fair point, fellow capitalist.
A recent Time magazine article pointed to Facebook (“Is Facebook the Future of Search?”) as emblematic of the social networks better able to handle the “serendipitous nature of search.” Active social networkers increasingly harvest answers to their questions from among large groups of people whose opinions they trust. Twitter is another great example of this, as are the hundreds of social networking sites oriented to the discovery of new music, video, movies, books, etc.
Experiments in semantic inference (trying to understand words as words in the way people use them) include Nova Spivack’s Twine, “a new service that helps you organize, share and discover information about your interests, with networks of like-minded people,” and Freebase, an “open database of the world’s information built by the community and for the community,” at least according to the people that force you to register to use it.
The truth is that today, none of these services can match Google’s universality and broad utility. But the odds are higher now than in the recent past that one of them will match Google one day. Or, at the very least, that more and more people will pause before defaulting to Google.com every time they need something online.
What’s it mean for advertisers?
Well, the good news for advertisers is that Google may come down a peg or two as their hegemony is threatened, that they might start treating advertisers more like clients and less like an administrative nuisance. That would be good. And while it’s unlikely their pricing power will erode (clicks from good prospects will always be worth a lot), it is very likely that the innovation of people trying to knock them off the top of the mountain will spur them to deliver technologies and approaches that increase the relevancy of search output, the click-through of search advertising, and the positive pre-disposition of the prospects they deliver. All good news.
The bad news? Well, that’s only for those of you very interested in the first result you get when you search “GOOG.”