Search has a long way to go

Ian Lurie

I spent the evening tonight working with my son, Harrison, as he tried to complete a report about a particular kind of wood.
Harrison’s pretty sharp (of course!) and I didn’t have to help much. So I got to observe as he struggled with Google, Bing and Yahoo! to find the information he needed. A few interesting observations:
People instinctively ask questions. Harrison kept typing stuff like ‘what is the life span of tiete rosewood’. The Big 3 responded with great answers like the life span of hardwood floors. Great, if he’s researching a new floor. Useless if he’s asking how the tree functions.
Information quality is nil. While brand favoritism may keep us safe when searching for the best gaming console or television, search engines are far, far away from being useful tools for meaningful research. I had to help Harrison filter out all sorts of useless search spam, including pages about rosewood lobster bottle openers (?) and sites with about 10 useful words surrounded by PPC ads for Viagra.
Search engines cultivate an air of legitimacy. Google, Bing and Yahoo! all try to tell us that they’re so brilliant, so all-encompassing, that we can find anything we need. Truth is, though, that they’re just lots of machines, linked together. Those machines can suck in lots of text. They can spit it back out again. But they can’t categorize information in a truly meaningful way. Google is a pile of words, not a librarian.
Tyranny of the majority rules. Since most people are more concerned about porn and cheap consumer goods than they are about research, the search engines cater to their needs. That stops being OK when they also start sucking the life out of other resources that might offer useful information for people trying to actually learn something.
Am I bitter? Actually no. But I do think it’s important we all realize that search engines aren’t truly a research tool. Nor can they replace our own brains as research tools. Not yet, anyway.

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Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at

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  1. I think that problem is only going to be fixed when we actually have progressed enough on artificial intelligence. Search engines only follow a set of algorithms and the algorithm to determine the truth value of a search result is so complicated, yet incomplete and probably lacks context.

  2. Ian,
    Another great post. But this potentially goes deep down into the rabbit hole.
    Do I want Google running AI so I (and my children) don’t have to disseminate what is the “right” answer? Not really, actually, not at all.
    From a commercial perspective, the results you show in the image reflect well optimized pages for “tiete rosewood” – and BR-111 (a commercial reseller of specialty hardwood flooring) won the prize.
    So what is the “right” answer for the question “tiete rosewood” and who is to determine that.
    One difference between a search engine and a librarian is you can ask the librarian follow up questions that s/he can interpret and follow a logical path. With the search engine each follow up question is like starting over again.
    person: “tiete rosewood”
    Search Engine: “nice to meet you, tiete rosewood = BR-111”
    person: “I meant what is the lifespan of a tiete rosewood tree?”
    Search Engine: “nice to meet you,
    The librarian answers – oh I see, let’s identify the species name and check the botany resources.

  3. I have had that problem so many times. Because I write copy for an ecommerce site peddling athletic apparel — and because I’m not exactly the world’s most athletic person — I’m forever googling gym-rat terminology, runners’ lingo, detailed explanations of the intricacies of lacrosse, definitions of “double duke crotch” (seriously!), “do they call him a wide receiver because he’s fat,” etc. (OK, I’m kidding about that last one.)
    At least 80%-90% of the time I cannot find exactly what I’m looking for. Sometimes I feel like the only person in the world who gets up to page 10 of the SERPs (whereupon I quit in disgust).
    Maybe I’m just not searching intelligently…I dunno. What I need is a search engine that can read my mind, LOL!

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