February 19, 2006

Search Engines Don’t Lie, Part I

Posted in Search, Software, Usability at 1:10 am by mj

Scoble’s been on a bit of a tear lately with his thesis that search engines lie. The implication being that Google, in particular, is intentionally inflating its numbers. What I found most disturbing was his perhaps light-hearted musing:

Why aren’t there any truth in advertising laws for search engines?

Well, just you wait. We’ve seen worse laws.

I’d flagged this for a thoughtful, well-researched post later (which, for me, means “sometime before December…2012”), but then he did it again in his latest “brrreeeport” report.

I’ll attack this from two angles, in two separate posts.

First up, a little analogy.

When I use Mapquest to get directions from Fremont to Seattle, it gives me back an estimate: 12 hours 59 minutes.

But what if it only takes me 11 hours? Or what if it takes me 14? Does it matter to me so much what the actual estimate is? Since they’re giving me a time down to the minute for such a long trip, it must mean something.

Of course, I know (and you know) from previous experience that even some of the streets may be incorrect once I get there. It’s an inherent limitation of the technology. It’s not easily fixable. Investing millions of dollars into being 1% more accurate wouldn’t be worth it. No “truth in advertising” laws need apply. No insinuations that Mapquest is “lying.”

Afterall, it’s easily inferrable that Yahoo is lying because their route only takes me 12 hours 44 minutes. Obviously they’re trying to make me believe they have superior road maps, or superior routing algorithms, when, in fact, it’s all a sham. Down with Yahoo! Down with The Man(tm)!

I understand the usability concerns for smaller result sets, and it seems to most noticeably affect newer memes. But knowing precisely how many matching pages there are for a given query is one of those “$1M for 0.001% better” problems that would never get prioritized over more pressing concerns…such as, you know, relevancy, and expediency, and scalability. Hmm.

So in the morning, when I’ve gotten some sleep, I’ll post a more serious explanation of this phenomenon. Not that I’m an authority. Just, you know, it isn’t rocket science.

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