Simon Willison’s Weblog

Learn to search!

Slate: Digging for Googleholes:

Type in the make and model of a new DVD player, and you’ll get dozens of online electronic stores in the top results, all of them eager to sell you the item. But you have to burrow through the results to find an impartial product review that doesn’t appear in an online catalog.

sony DVP-S550D—shopping sites come out top

sony DVP-S550D review—review sites come out top

Search for “apple” on Google, and you have to troll through a couple pages of results before you get anything not directly related to Apple Computer—and it’s a page promoting a public TV show called Newton’s Apple. After that it’s all Mac-related links until Fiona Apple’s home page. You have to sift through 50 results before you reach a link that deals with apples that grow on trees: the home page for the Washington State Apple Growers Association.

apple—lots of stuff about Apple computers

apple fruit—lots of stuff about Apples, the fruit

These are not even advanced search techniques. It’s a basic rule of searching: if your first set of results aren’t what you are looking for, enter more specific terms and try again.

So, when you’re doing research online, Google is implicitly pushing you toward information stored in articles and away from information stored in books. Assuming this practice continues, and assuming that Google continues to grow in influence, we may find ourselves in a world where, if you want to get an idea into circulation, you’re better off publishing a PDF file on the Web than landing a book deal.

I’d say that day has already come (but replace PDF with HTML), but I’m not sure I understand how this is a bad thing. Surely information is more valuable if it is searchable? Books are not going to die out because of the internet (how many people prefer reading from a screen?) but if you have an idea to share the internet is obviously a better medium—you reach millions more people for a fraction of the cost of traditional publishing.

There are a lot of legitimate concerns about Google relating to its size and massive influence over the web’s traffic, but concerns about skewed results are often the fault of the user rather than the tool. Learn to search!

This is Learn to search! by Simon Willison, posted on 24th July 2003.

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