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Search Getting Worse? What Did I Mean?!

By - January 06, 2010

(Excerpted from a longer post on BingTweets, part of a series I’ve been writing, underwritten by Bing).

In my predictions this week I seemed unusually glum about the state of search, writing: Traditional search results will deteriorate to the point that folks begin to question search’s validity as a service.

This statement did not go unnoticed by folks in the industry, and I received quite a few emails, Tweets, and comments asking what on earth I meant. Well, in the post I tried to explain:

This does not mean people will stop using search – habits do not die that quickly and search will continue to have significant utility. But we are in the midst of a significant transition in search – as I’ve recently written, we are asking far more complicated questions of search, ones that search is simply not set up to answer. This incongruence is not really fair to blame on search, but so it goes. Add to this the problem of an entire ecosystem set up to game AdWords, and the table is set.

Let me use this final BingTweets entry to expand on what I meant.

My statement about how we’re asking “far more complicated questions of search” is a riff on the writings I’ve done here on the BingTweets blog, specifically, my three part series on “Decisions Are Never Easy” (1, 2, 3). In short, I find that all of us are expecting search, a technology built to answer one-dimensional questions like “capital of Yemen”, to answer questions that have more than one semantic meaning (“Yemen al qaeda leadership diplomacy”). As a reader (and search entrepreneur) put it in an email to me: “When people move to complex queries (defined as two or more semantically disjunct terms), search breaks down. All it is really fit to do is deliver all the permutations. Imagine a 5-term query, all semantically disjunct. …. such as … “green tea, life quality, life expectancy, cancer, tumor”. Did you ever try and read 40,000 documents?”

Well no, none of us ever try to read all the documents search brings back – all the “permutations” that search faithfully (and rather unintelligently) renders to us. We all know by now that when we ask a complicated question of search, search will pretty much throw everything and the kitchen sink at us. And we don’t want all that information. We want our answer!

I have no doubt that such an answer is coming, but before it does, we have to go through a period of disappointment. ……. (continued)

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18 thoughts on “Search Getting Worse? What Did I Mean?!

  1. Bertil says:

    That’s great: French government seems to be considering to tax search engines—and you are saying they won’t have a year left. Feels like Second Life all over again.

  2. Nick R says:

    Or the opposite could happen… That is, search users might get better at constructing search queries. In all seriousness, when was the last time that you’ve seen zero results returned for a search? I don’t see the quality of search decreasing, not even as our queries get more complex.

    Perhaps, you are arguing that people’s expectations of search will outpace actual technology.

  3. JG says:

    John, it’s not just about complex queries. It is about complex interactions with the results of those queries.

    I’ve been commenting on this for years now — mentioned that there are some pretty basic, well-known, and proven ways of sorting through those 40,000 results much more easily than search engines allow us to do now. Here are some of my comments from January 2006:

    ..from February 2006:

    …and January 2007:

    …and June 2008:

    For me, search has been getting worse for years now. And it’s taken half a decade to even acknowledge that search engines need to be able to handle our more complicated questions?

    How much longer am I going to have to wait until we get through this period of disappointment of which you speak? I weary of more effort being poured into phone operating systems than into search.


  4. billy says:

    Typo in your headline. Currently says “Seach” instead of “Search”

  5. billy says:

    Typo in your headline. Currently says “Seach” instead of “Search”

  6. bruce wayne says:

    John I agree with you 100%
    It is dead simple. If you have a system built on garbage in; your system can only output garbage.

    Until we fix this and move to an Object Oriented web search results from traditional search engines will contain garbage and will be unable to handle complex questions.

    At factoetum we are going to help change all of this.

  7. Dan says:

    John, I don’t think we’ve trained our brains to search the way we know will deliver the best results – and I don’t see user search behavior shifting as quickly as you expect.

    Some might try more advanced searches and get mixed results – but I’d wager that the vast majority of us have a good sense of what to expect and what not to expect from search engines – and we’re locked in a symbiotic mind-meld with search engines in that respect.

    P.S. The reason semantic search isn’t going anywhere fast is because there isn’t really a need for it…yet.

  8. JG says:

    John, I don’t think we’ve trained our brains to search the way we know will deliver the best results – and I don’t see user search behavior shifting as quickly as you expect.

    So Nick Carr was right.. Google is making us stupid?

  9. Andrew says:

    Search is already awful. At least 50% of first page Google search results are spam pages. It is an awfulness of their own creation.

  10. John Gotts says:

    Jan 11, 2010 | John Gotts says:

    What’s interesting is that Google could make search far better but by doing so it would ultimately mean a drop in ad revenue.

    I built a search engine that was at one point at bijobee dot com. The website was based on the Google advanced search API and let a user define search by time, URL (.org, .com, .edu, .gov or country code) and beyond that could set time range (down to a specific day or day range), selected sites to search and more. Google does a lot of this now but not enough to make a real difference.

    What I found was that when the results are ABSOLUTELY accurate nobody clicks on an ad.

    That is the profound problem that Google and the others using the original Overture patent face if they over-develop search.

    What we found was that click-through-rate dropped to less than 1% from as high as 11% using the straight Google search API.

    When you’re making nearly all of your money with something that works, and that money is into the billions of dollars monthly, let’s just say you don’t fix what ain’t broken. In this case search is broken but their revenue model is superb.

    I believe that’s why Google/AOL/Ask (they all use Google) isn’t going to fix this any time soon nor will Bing/Yahoo.

    Posted by John Gotts, founder of

  11. I think no matter which way you look at it the search engines are not going anywhere. They are actually going to get even stronger to the point where we really depend on them. We are not 100% there just yet but we are getting close.

  12. Daniel says:

    John, I agree with the comment from Bruce Wayne. The amount of garbage in Internet is largely outstanding content that is really reliable and useful. Twitter and all other social networks increased this fact enormously and many times we have to dig much garbage before finding something interesting.
    I would predict 4 different evolutions in web search:
    1. Searching for news: Feeds, twitter and some news aggregators doing a pretty good work, they will improve somehow and search engines results are not suited in those situations.
    2. Searching for “more complicated questions”: Semantic web will do the job much better than search engines, but this will only be true in many years to come.
    3. Searching for people and direct links, like homepages: Browsers will do the job in an “I’m feeling lucky” style.
    4. Searching for a subject we want to study: People will access directly to Wikipedia without passing through search engines. But here is where search engines could improve what they offer: the future of web search must be some kind of content clustering / categorization. I would predict that in the near future we will see Google results displayed by default the same way as And if there was a way of “organizing all the Internet content”? I’ve been following a project that intends to have a web directory “with tens of millions of subjects” and best results for each subjected ordered in accordance with users’ election and participation ( And a social network for every possible subject. Wouldn’t that be the best search engine in most situations?
    Anyway, my opinion goes with your title: As they are now, search results are getting worse.

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    That is the profound problem that Google and the others using the original Overture patent face if they over-develop search.

  17. Oakleys says:

    That is the profound problem that Google and the others using the original Overture patent face if they over-develop