What don’t the major search engines do well?
That’s a burning question these days from way too many parties. It comes up in John Battelle’s most recent post (one that reminds me how effective a writer he is), which culminates in a plea for teaching search literacy in schools, and then journalist Cyrus Farivar’s thoughtful commentary on it. It’s a hot topic on Alt Search Engines, where Charles Knight finds and promotes startups that beat the engines at their own game. And of course it’s the raison d’être for all those engines.
There are two ways to address the problem of engines’ shortcomings. One way is to make the engines smarter. The other is to make the users smarter. With any luck we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.
It’s interesting to see startups’ different approaches to making themselves smarter.
Powerset, for example, which was acquired by Microsoft, only parses Wikipedia pages so far, so it’s hard to gauge the real value of the technology. Powerset will summarize pages and also claims to show “factz” (ugh) and meaning. Many of the suggested searches under “meaning” also relate to facts, such as “What did Caravaggio paint” “What awards did ‘No Country for Old Men’ win” and “When did earthquakes hit Tokyo.” The results are clearly organized, but any real power still is hidden under the hood.
True Knowledge, still in beta, also prides itself on facts, but the kind spelled with an s. Company strategists wrote in an email update earlier this month, “We are really excited that our knowledge base has expanded to the point that it now boasts over 110 million facts, which has greatly increased the number of questions we can answer.” I wonder how many billions of facts are out there, and which are the ones people either currently use search engines for or would use search engines for if people trusted search engines had those answers. Some context would be useful to ground the big number.
The engines also continue to progress in answering facts, even if they don’t provide direct answers to 110 million questions. One True Knowledge example is “When is Easter Sunday 2009.” True Knowledge answers this perfectly with a big, bold answer, but it’s also in the description of the first result in Google.
Hakia, another contender, has loftier sights from the start. All of its sample queries on the homepage strive to address more than facts. These queries include “What is the most effective way to lose weight,” “What are benefits of a long-term care insurance,” “Is bottled water better than tap water,” and “Most common risk factors for stroke.” Even more surprising is that the first three queries don’t have clear, quantifiable answers. The weight loss query, rather than responding with “put down the Mallomars, turn off Hulu, and blow the dust off the Wii Fit already!,” brings up a bunch of results — including many from librarian-certified sites — with highlighted text that helps answer the query. The user then can make informed decisions. Hakia also has thousands of fact-filled pages in its galleries, but it’s focused on addressing higher-level queries.
Facts are important areas for search engines to cover. Anyone who’s old enough to remember the struggles of finding facts in reference books or libraries will appreciate how much time search engines save. It even proved useful at my family’s lunch celebration for my birthday this weekend. My dad tried to recall the name of the actor who played President George H.W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s movie “W.,” just noting it was an “old guy who plays mobsters,” which I instantly pegged as James Cromwell. My nephew checked IMDB.com from his mom’s iPhone and proved me right. It felt good.
Better indexing of facts will make engines more useful, but it won’t make them smarter. For that, they need to be more intelligent, and better at indexing meaning. It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom.
No matter what, we’ll still require human search literacy. Even facts are subject to interpretation. With a simple phrase like “Joe the Plumber,” one can think it refers to a plumber named Joe, while another can assert that it’s someone named Sam who isn’t licensed as a plumber.
We can’t assume search engines will ever sort it out perfectly like the eponymous protagonist of the movie “WALL-E.” We can aim to make sure we’re smart enough to make the most of all the engines do for us.