If it isn’t Google, it isn’t search

Written by Alex Watson

June 24, 2009 // 12:19 p.m.

Tags: #bing #facebook #google #search #social-network #twitter

So there’s a new search engine called Bing. It’s made by Microsoft, and before it was Bing, it was Live Search, and before that Windows Live Search and MSN Search and... basically it’s been going since the Magna Carta, and since it’s not Google, 90% of people don’t care. But Microsoft does, and it wants you to. It’s really serious this time about taking on Google so it’s spending billions of dollars to make sure people stop Googling and start Binging. Steve Ballmer said Microsoft was “willing to spend five to ten percent of operating income for up to five years”. That’s serious cash.

A small slice of this moolah has fallen to us at bit-tech (we already spent it on Taiwanese beef jerky), but unlike a lot of ad campaigns, this one is interesting as Microsoft has been quite keen to know what we think, and what you, the readers think about search – specifically, the problems with it. If you do want to give your thoughts on search, we’re running a survey and you can win an Xbox 360 Elite.

It’s a difficult question, because, to be honest, my first answer was that I didn’t really have any problems with search. Google just works. There’s a reason that this is the answer given in many a forum thread. [break]
After my initial reaction, I started to think again – after all, as good as Google is, is it really perfect? That has all the hallmarks of being 640k statement.
In fact, what I realised is Google is perfect for is Googling – that is to say, there are some queries I have which I go to Google with, because I know it will handle them very well, but there are lots of other queries which are, technically ‘search’ which go elsewhere. In my mind, these queries are quite distinct. The former is search, the latter is something else.

If it isn’t Google, it isn’t search

Take books – I’m an avid reader, so I’m always interested in book recommendations. If I hear a friend talking about a book, or one mentioned on the TV or radio, I’ll look it up on Amazon. If I’m interested in finding out about the author, I’ll try Wikipedia, if it’s a movie trailer I want, I’ll hit the Apple site. When it’s pancake day and I’ve inevitably forgotten how to cook pancakes, I’ll go to the BBC Food website to look up a recipe. If I’m researching new camera gear, or want to find photos of places, I’ll start with Flickr. If there’s a news event happening that I want to know more about – let’s say the recent uprisings in Iran – I’ll go directly to the Guardian, the New York Times or the BBC. Google’s where I go for everything else.

There’s clearly quite a lot of information that I search for online that never goes near Google, but regardless of this, I still perceived Google as being perfect. Essentially, Google has managed to position itself as not just the best search engine, but as the very definition of what it is to search online.

Bing’s problem is twofold, then. The first is that its competitor is very good at what it does and has been for many years, and so has both dominant marketshare and mindshare. The second is that Google’s dominance means Bing has to let its competitor define the argument. Google is search. It’s what people expect from search. As a result, Bing looks and works like a Google clone. True, there are some differences between the two – the big full colour photo in the background, and a nicely implemented quick preview of a page when you hover to name two – but essentially, Bing looks no different from Google. It doesn’t really work differently either, with a search box that you type into, and the ability to specifically search for images and video.

Yet, if you think about it, while Google has become the very definition of online search, it’s a very narrowly defined vision of search. A Google search is academic, direct and simple in its structure. It’s the kind of inquiry you might, twenty or thirty years ago, have made in a library.

Offline, outside the library, search has always been much more varied – so, as I noted above, people vary where they look for information both online and offline – but search offline is also a two way process, and increasingly, I think it’s going to be a two way process online. It’s here that Google (and Bing) fall down.

Imagine that you want to learn to snowboard. Offline, you might visit a Ski shop, and you could chat to the assistants there about what you need to start off. The assistant will vary what advice they give you based on your responses to their questions. Search engines can try and mimic this relatively shallow two-way communication – but then imagine if you’ve got a friend who can snowboard, and you ask them for advice. They will factor into their advice all the things they know about you
– for instance, if you’ve been Skiing before, or can skateboard, how sporty you are and a hundred million other considerations. There’s a deep, and often quite subtle interplay of knowledge going on.

Online, you can alter your Google query to, in essence, try and tell the system more about yourself – so you could Google ‘snowboarding for beginners’ rather than just ‘snowboarding’ – but it’s a poor imitation of what you get in real life, and you’ll likely spend quite a lot of time reading results from a general query, before returning to Google to refine a new query. It’s time consuming, and again, very academic – how many people have the time to sit there endlessly refining their queries?

Most search offline takes place in your network of friends, acquaintances and trusted sources. This is the reason that search inside social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are receiving such a lot of buzz at the moment, because unlike Google, they allow to replicate a degree of your offline life online. Search engines are doing their best to learn about people who are searching (storing huge amounts of data, iGoogle etc) – witness the recently launched Hunch, which actually asks you questions about your personality - but they’re starting at a huge disadvantage compared to an online social network which you’ve set up to replicate your real life friends and social contacts.

Essentially then, my feeling is that traditional search engines such as Google (and Bing) will face increasing competition from social search, and become increasingly less relevant.