Are Search Engines Fit for Purpose?

Google has become like Microsoft

I have a friend who is obsessed with "Open Source" products and software. For him, it can do nothing wrong. He has a particular downer on Microsoft, even though he is fully accredited with them and instructs people in how to use it every day. When you boil his issues down to their essence, it comes down to the fact that he considers they overcharge for the products they provide and that they get away with it because most of us don't know any better.

But I am less concerned about Micosoft Apps than I am by Google and Facebook. At least with Microsoft, you pay your money and you get a working set of software most of the time. It's up to you to judge whether Word or Excel do the job you want them to and that they are worth the money you pay for them. Over time, they have become no more and no less than the thousands of other apps you can buy at the Apple or Google Stores.

The operating system is another thing altogether. If you buy a Windows computer, you get Windows, kind of familiar, mostly working ok, most of the time. Like Apple's OS or Android, you make a pact with the devil in return for getting something for nothing (which, as my granny would say, is another way of saying "nothing comes free"). The trade off you make is (relative) ease of installation and free update in return for the big corporations extracting information from you. But even this is not really the subject of this article (I will return to it another day), except to note that the line between "search" and the operating systems of the main providers is becoming more and more blurred. With the installation of so-called, smart search devices, such as Siri and Cortana, the OS providers already try to influence you before you even realise it, by routing you down their preferred supply routes. Microsoft's recent announcement that you will only be able to use Cortana with Bing is a classic example of abusing their OS to try and control what we do and see online. It is like saying, "Yes, you can have the information that I can provide you, but not the full information available and then only the stuff someone paid for".

Even this pales into insignificance besides the real problem with "Search", in particular the near-monopoly that is Google. Is it really giving us what we want, or is it failing in its duties altogether and abusing its monopoly position? Worse still (a bit like Microsoft's domination of PC's a few years back), is it actually fit for purpose any more? Have we become so accustomed to the limited quality service it supplies that we don't even notice it? If you stop and think a moment, you will realise that we dont even have anything to compare it with any more such is its power and ubiquity. Let me give you an example.

Does Search Really Give Us What we Want?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was something called Yellow Pages. Let's say I wanted to search for restaurants in my home town. I simply opened the page, found the resturants section and began looking. I knew that if I saw a big advert, it was exactly that. The owner had paid more and so the ad was more in my face. But browsing was easy and I could easily turn a few pages to get through the list of restaurants. It even had the types set out for me in case I wanted to search for Indian or French or any other type of food.

So what happens when you try the same thing online?

Google search for restaurants in Swansea gives me 13 results on the first page, plus some links - I am tempted to say "only 13 results":

  • First I get Google Ads - well, ok, I know the companies are paying for this, which makes it acceptable, and my luck is in. Nobody has an ad today.
  • Next I get Google Places - but this is limited to only three restaurants. To see more, I have to open it up and then I can get the list. But the list itself has no order that I can make out. It can't be the number of stars or reviews they have as there are some really good resturants down the list with great reviews and more stars than the ones at the top.. So that's no good to me, so I start to look at the list in organic search.
  • Organic Search results are entirely dominated by review sites, Trip Advisor, Wales Online etc. Since when did Trip Advisor ever so much as turn on a cooker? I have to navigate to the forbidden world of Page 2 to find my first actual independent restaurant listing, and to page 3 and 4 before these become common.

To show I am not biased I try the same search in Bing and it's exactly the same, only this time I get some ridiculous carousel with a ribbon of stars across the top of my page, every single one of which has the words Trip Advisor inserted into it. As if anyone ever trusted a Trip Advisor review...

I try it on mobile. The web is full of articles telling me how Google has adapted to mobile search. But, to be honest, the results are just as disappointing. It is pretty much the same list, uninformed by anything remotely human, unsegmented and hard to browse.

I try Facebook. This is where everyone is, all sharing information and letting everyone know after all. Results here go on forever, so again my browing experience is totally wrecked by the interface. Worse still, when I check the dates, postings come from as far back as 2011 and there is nothing from 2016 at all apart from the rather depressing tale of a raid on an Indian restaurant against illegal immigration.

Where does the real problem lie?

My issue is that these companies are no longer supplying me with a "browsing experience", they are manipulating data against a preferred set of facts.  Not only that, but I have no idea what the algorithm they are using is to begin with. It's a secret, after all. Try asking for an alphabetical list of restaurants and my bet is you will never find it. Now, I could turn my preferences on in the search engines, reveal more about myself, add reviews myself and maybe contribute in a way that makes the process more acceptable, but I don't want to do that. Why should I open the curtains in my house so the neighbours can peek in?

Now I am no dummy. I know that "search" is Google's way of making money. So it is going to favour the search terms that are going to feed the monster. To suggest anything else is insane. After all how would the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, look if he was to let his shareholders know he had not "maximised his revenue streams" this year. So, just like my friend says is true of Microsoft, we now seem to be paying an unseen price for an inadequate product. And because it has become a monopoly, we have stopped realising there ought to be something better.

I can't prove this, but my impression is that the process has got worse. A few years ago, I really would have got a list of independent websites listed. The decline of quality search seems to be in direct proportion to Google's fiddling the results with their algorithm changes. Now, I may be alone in complaining. I could just be plain wrong. After all hundreds of millions of searches are done each day and there is no mass uprising to replace Google any time soon. I just feel that we should not have to put up with this just, because there is nothing better.

I will return to this question when I look at how small businesses are struggling with Google's monopoly and lack of transparency, and to look at the way our addiction to Google has left small businesses vulnerable to SEO decisions of doubtful value which they have no control of, and to ask if there is a way out, or if the monopoly of the big organisations on the web is actually strangling creativity and growth.

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