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Search is a Task; Discovery is Fun

Oh Google how you’ve changed. As with every change, you seem to become less fun.

Those who were there using the web when Google launched, will probably remember how much fun it was to discover things with Google. The single, biggest amazement by my recollection? That I could enter any specific text string, and Google would return the exact URLs where it appeared. Wow. Indexing what seemed like the entire World Wide Web. Amazing! Check this out… (search)… and this! (search) and on and on. I had no idea those things were out there, and they were wicked cool, and I was thrilled to have discovered them. I made my day… sunnier.

When I needed to “find” something I didn’t know existed, I used my creativity – I crafted a query I suspected might return something close to what I suspected was out there… and it worked!

Google was awesome.

These days, after many years of Google becoming more and more like my ornery, overly disciplined and strict grandfather, the experience searching with Google is almost the opposite of what it was. Every query is now a battle, and nearly every result set is a disappointment. That might not be fair to say, because not every result set is inadequate. But, using Google is certainly not fun, and therein lies some disappointment. Google is no longer a discovery tool. It is much closer to a directory than ever before, and a biased, incomplete directory at that. As Gigaom said in it’s article about Pinterest and Pinterest look-a-likes, search is a task, and discovery is fun.

Search is changing, and Google is a big reason. I don’t think Pinterest is any more amazing than Google image search or Bing image search can be. Unfortunately, Google and Bing don’t do image search very well. The reason seems to be one of control — these “search engines” seem to want to control us in ways that make them money, instead of allowing us to engage with their tools in ways that make us happy.

That “seem” is a reflection of the emotion one feels when using Google or Bing image search, vs. visual discovery tools like Pinterest.  And that’s the “fail” — that is where Google and other search engines miss the market. Pinterest is so simple, and not much of an innovation. It’s done what Facebook and Google and Bing could have easily done, had they the freedom to deliver what is easy, cool, fun, interesting, etc. But those organizations instead project a sense of technical seriousness instead. They are in a battle, and we users can sense it. Overly gruff, overly concerned with things “we don’t understand”, and so overly-focused on some endpoint beyond our immediate desires that it gets in the way.

Looking for an image to inspire your blog post? What were the odds that you would hit Google image search for inspiration a year ago? Have you tried Pinterest? If you have, what are the odds today, that you’ll engage with Pinterest first, before going to Google or Bing image search? Seems like nothing but upside for Pinterest.

Sadly, engineers don’t recognize today’s “search” challenge as anything beyond social graphs, vote flags, or  races to comprehensiveness or correctness or any combination of weighting factors probabilistically certain to define “the best”. And that’s probably the biggest “fail” of all. Just as Apple knew mediocre design would fail to sell an excellent product into a crowded marketplace, Google’s technocrats fail to recognize that its customers are sloppy, messy, emotional, tired, and often anxious humans. Of course a handful of every hundred American consumers work hard and care about correctness and utility and “the right way” to do things. Everybody else? Well, let’s just say technically-correct and “safe”, boring, search isn’t very satisfying.

Search is a task, previously reserved for librarians and statisticians. Increasingly, it is returning to that status, encouraged by Google and the others. Discovery? It’s still a wide open field.