In the course of this year I need to find a local source of shredding services in my desperate fight to stop this hut from drowning in paper. By the end of the year I shall need to have bought a new car. In the idle twilight between Christmas and new year I found myself Googling on both of these topics – and the process took longer and took me to more places than I had ever imagined.
And I read more advertising, dodgy reviews and spam than I had ever imagined, so when I read that Paul Kedrosky had had an identical experience, then I perked up a bit. It is always good to find really clever people reacting just as you did. I then discovered a whole band of bloggers through December and January basically arguing that the Web of spam and misleading search of a decade ago, which Google had cleaned up effectively in its early days, had now returned to haunt us – on Google.
Whether this is the fault of Google is debatable. Some argue that it is SEO which causes the damage, others that it is the insatiable hunger for Google advertising . Some appear to think that a search environment without advertising will do the trick, and Vivek Wadhwa at UC Berkeley argues convincingly for Blekko.
Both of these blogs demonstrate key facets of the debate but, to my mind, the debate is couched in the wrong terms entirely.What we must think about is not who replaces Google, but whether keyword searching has a future.
Now I must declare a prejudice. I have never been a huge fan of keyword searching. My experience of search began in the early 1980s, when as a (younger) Thomson manager I was deputed to build an online service for lawyers. We used a search package called STATUS which had been created for the UK’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment to search UK statutes and statutory instruments for references to the enactments which had set up the AERE. Both inventors worked for me, one as an advisor, the other as my CTO. Both warned me daily of the insufficiency of the system we were operating to do more than find words in documents , and not to fall victim to the idea that we were thereby creating “answers” or “solutions”. The result was that I was never a victim of the “myth of infallibility” that pervaded early web search engines and became an essential Google quality in the past five years.
Infallible? A system that cannot distinguish the grossly out-of-date from today, that can be spoofed into presenting advertising copy as answers, or that can represent anything except a thought or a concept?
As a result of this early inoculation, my sights have long been set on finding search solutions, so I checked back with some of my legal market successors this week to see how they were faring. Was Google Law going to sweep them away? Would the service principles of Google Scholar once applied to law, as Google has claimed, create universal free service values that would seperate the lawyer from his dependence on subscription based legal retrieval engines?
Not so, I learnt from Lexis Nexis. In fact, the opposite is the case. The body of law is finite, its authorship necessarily limited. In any legal domain, the retrieval engine investment is now dedicated towards tagging content with semantic metadata, developing the inference rules within the ontological structure created when taxonomies are being refined and redeveloped, and emerging as semantic search players. As law is increasingly defined in conceptual blocks which can be developed as a classification system for the ideas and arguments that lie behind legal concepts, systems are emerging which owe little to the world that Google still inhabits. And what Lexis (and undoubtedly Westlaw) are doing today will be the way in which law offices search contextually in their own and third party content tomorrow.
Is this just a law market phenomenon ? Well ,the techniques and ideas mentioned here have been very heavily involved in scientific research, especially in the life sciences, for the past five years. The whole standards environment created by Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web council predicted this development and the search engine software SPARQL is an experimental exemplar of a direction taken by a number of semantic search start-ups.
The drawback has been the tendency for searching on concepts to become very domain-focussed, where taxonomy can be more precise and concepts easier to describe. But as we move forward, this may be the next big push behind vertical search. Despite (or because ) we have stopped talking about them, community-based vertical sector players like Globalspec have been able to take a strong grip on the way in which professionals work in a sector like engineering.
Once community activity – making engineering design specs available for cross-searching – becomes susceptible to semantic enquiry, the ability of vertical business players to lock in users and establish themselves as the performance benchmark (and compliance engine) of the sector becomes realistic. The scenario that results from this is sometimes monopolistic, often duopolistic, seldom capable of sustaining rafts of competing content players.
So Google remains in place just as a consumer environment? No, I think that Facebook and its successors become the consumer research environment. Search by asking someone you know, or at least have a connection with, and get recommendations and references which take you right to the place where you buy.
Search in mobile environments is already taking too long and throwing up too many false leads. Anyone here used a shredding company in South Bucks? How did you rate them? How do I contact them? I have this fantasy that I mention “Google” to my grandchildren and they say “do you mean the phone company?” What is the best strategy job in the industry:the one that defines the line of migration for Google out of search and towards the next big marketplace (pity they missed Groupon!)