Google Sucks: Why It Might Be a Good Thing

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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.

<Sigh.>

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.

Mahalo is interesting, for what it calls “human powered search.” So is Powerset, though it’s currently focused on indexing concepts embedded in Wikipedia rather than crawling the Web on it’s own.

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.”

10 COMMENTS

  1. Mike,

    You make some excellent points here.

    I have been involved in marketing on the internet (with commercial intent) since 1993. As an early pioneer of online communities (now known as social networks) and founder of what became one of the nets largest ad networks I recall with great nostalgia my early searches on google.com.

    You are right, they have not capitalized on the long standing relationship with added demographic context and improved relevance which is too bad for them.

    I believe this is a good thing. I can just see it right now – somewhere there is a team of bright young people working to create a solution that could possibly dethrone the giant.

    Googles largest competition may not be microsoft, yahoo or facebook, but by a company that is not even formed by a bunch of hungry students who are still developing their technology and are yet to even place words on what or how it works.

    I have recently seen a business plan for just such a company – in all my years of internet experience, NEVER have I seen so much potential and promise. The challenge for them is to find the angel capital they need to develop their prototype.

    I’d love to see this concept get off the ground – so if anyone knows some active angels, please send them my way.

    Allan Sabo
    Alti Success Strategies
    Experts at Integrating Social Media and Internet Marketing
    ____________________________________________
    Follow me at http://www.twitter.com/mediamanx
    to get tips, tools, thoughts and industy banter

  2. users will burn out on it and move on to a more entertaining simple vertical location based catalog navigation. wont even need a keyboard or have to type something in. just mouse around and click on vertical icons. in the end which is only 5-10 years away the most efficient b2b b2c c2c vertical channels will take over. integration is everything.
    http://www.vator.tv/pitch/show/MyLocatorcom

  3. This is why there’s a lot of alternative search engines out there trying multiple technologies. I’m not a huge believer in folksonomies or user based search. While they have their value, to handle large scale EVERYthing, there has to be better algorithms and methods.

    Guided Search or Dynamic Navigation solves some of the problems of ambiguity, though not necessarily some of the behavioral history issues you suggest as problems. (We use such techniques at http://www.twing.com inline with our forum search results to allow for a user’s iterative drill down into information.) Users have a variety of different search use cases, but two common ones are: 1) They’re looking for a particular answer, (like how tall is the Statue of Liberty or 2) They’re searching for some kind of answer set, but are even unclear on how to ask the question, like How do I select a buoyancy compensator. Within the results themselves are more keywords, and they then reformulate their query and search again; which is somewhat starting over as opposed to continuing forward. I believe at this time Ask.com is the only ‘major’ search engine that tries to offer concept clusters inline with results.

    The major consumer issue is that folks are habituated to the top search engines, when there’s actually hundreds of alternatives. Charles Knight runs a site called http://www.altsearchengines.com He’s got lists of hundreds of specialty engines. It’s just that these are mostly used by more sophisticated or experimental users. Until the typical consumers start discovering these alternatives, or even realize they’re not getting the best results from the majors, they’ll do something called Satisficing. Basically, living with results that maybe seem adequate, even if they’re not really the best.

    Scott Germaise
    Director, Product Management
    Twing.com – Community Forum Search & Discovery

  4. Google is a business machine on a war path to be not just Number 1 but the dominant 1 and effectively the only one that is relevant. Relevant in what matters to Google and counts most in their world. What has matters to them after they massacred all their competitors in the paid search industry 4 years ago is to eliminate the all time and long reigning king of the digital technology mountain – Microsoft.
    Google goes to war like Alexader, Khan, the 300 and Patton. They became the King of Search Business by tactics of becoming the authority and believed technology leader of search. Therefore they re-wrote the rules of and model of PPC and were written to read as more fair and more toward the advertisers advantage as well as don’t forget for the betterment of the users experience.
    Hmmmm. $200+Billion later, and not much later as it took Google less number of quarters to achieve than in years for Microsoft to achieve not only in value but Google eclipsed annual revenue of windows last year.
    So too who’s benefit and the betterment who’s user experience. When you manipulate the system it is for one goal the $ and the dominance. Show no evil, Say no evil, Winning is no evil it is everything.
    much more behind the sucking as it is very evil and therefore can be defeated it can only suck so much money out of the working class before they realize what suckers they have been

  5. This is an awesome article. Really like the spin you put on this. Makes you wonder. I agree with you about the behemoth Goog has created. They have staying power but web 2.0 and social media are pulling market share from them fast as hell. Peeps getting smarter and these networks are people edited. This creates the LSI framework that best resembles the thought pattern of humans. I am sure we will see them put up some major bucks to stay in the social game. YouTube for example. Thanks and I will read more of your posts. :)

  6. […] Many people too can agree that Google’s bare bones home page seems to perplex many once they see what kind of results can be delivered form within. But, the Google search engine is far from having the characteristics of a human, and that was the something that Mike Troiano almost longed for after the 10 years of being a user. Troiano explains, “Why doth Google suck? Let me count the ways.Google.com doesn’t know or care about me. Google.com doesn’t care or know about where I am. Google.com is ignorant of meaning.” In fact, Troiano is so passionate about his feelings on Google he recently wrote an entire article about it titled, “Google Sucks: Why It Might Be a Good Thing“. […]

  7. Well the “nerds” are still using google, i couldn’t imagne using a GUI above a search string, its impossible quite simple.

    Its faster to type in a search string, and its far better then using shit like wikipedia.

  8. I am not a big google fan. At least, not anymore. I started a small business web site, and all I wanted to do was submit my URL and see results. I did see my stuff on the products page one weekend. This was the weekend I launched my site. I wasn’t quite done with it, but I wanted to get a jump start on having it spidered. Anyway, on the following Monday I did another search on google, just ’cause. My stuff wasn’t there anymore. Why? What happened? I used a free site company that provides you a free site and submits to google products for you – and for all I knew it worked, because that weekend I was seeing results. A couple of days later, POOF, gone.

    I am just fed up with “conglomerates”. I hate monopolies. It makes me feel like the internet will soon have to face deregulation.

    I don’t have the money to spend on “internet marketing” blah blah. I have some things around my house that I want to sell. I have inventory from a once owned storefront that I am looking to sell. Why does it have to be so damn hard now just to get your face on the web? Sure, I am doing classified ads and such, but guess what? Even THOSE aren’t on google anymore. What’s the point of doing this if no one is going to find me?

    I avoided eBay because I always felt that they were too greedy. I’ve read countless articles about their practices which only validated my feelings towards them. Google now makes this list.
    I went so far as to even change my internet browser home page – but even that search engine is partner-powered by google.

    Ugh.

    I’ve decided that if I am not good enough for google, they are no longer good enough for me. I will find alternative ways to get my little site out there and hopefully generate some profit. I just hope that one day, someone, somewhere, will provide google a humbling session.

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