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Pseudo-Random Thoughts on Search

The web is broken. I am getting old. My way of using the web is broken. I don’t find what I need when I “use” the web, whether it is actual factual information or “something new”. Google is broken. Google doesn’t work — anymore. Google is not useful to me, except sometimes. The obvious times. The times when I need it the least… like when I know where to go but I Google anyway just because I am being lazy. I guess that means navigational searches. Google is broken, except for navigational searches, and shit I don’t need.

Google has become like Target (to me). A big store with a big marketing budget and convenient locations, selling a whole bunch of shit I don’t want or need.

When was the last time I bought anything at Target? When I had no other options. Like when I was at the vacation house, needed a flashlight, and knew there was a Target right on the main drag. Off to Target, to over-pay for a lower quality Flashlight than I would ever buy in my “real” life, and back home minutes later. I totally assumed Target would have a flashlight.. there was NO WAY they wouldn’t have had some sort of cheap enough flashlight. And they did. I didn’t need to check on that.. I could just go.

When I was back home from vacation I ordered a quality flashlight over the web, so I’d have it in my car next trip. Did I Google for it? Yeah, I did. But attention Bruce Clay: I didn’t Google the term “flashlight”.

I wasn’t in a hurry, so I started with education in mind and in an effort to turn my mundane need into something a little more interesting. I Googled things like “tactical flashlights 2012″ since I find that interesting.. reading the latest opinions on tactical flashlights capable of blinding an intruder (while I shot him, I suppose), and which had strong enough sharpened metal divots on the end of it to bludgen Mr. Taliban to death (if I had to do battle with Mr. Taliban, and only had my flashlight with me, I suppose). I guess that was a Google warm on the topic of flashlights and how they fit into my life, executed in a multi-purpose way that is probably a little unique to me.

Having learned a little bit (more) about tactical flashlights, I searched for LED flashlights from specific brands I already liked, and read some reviews (mostly on Amazon). I ordered a really good one that just happened to be the one I picked out in person at the last Shooting Sports expo event I attended. Maybe that had biased my “search”. I also ordered a crappy flashlight Amazon reviewers said was “the same” as a far more expensive name brand one, and made by the same Chinese factory. That one was much cheaper than the far-inferior one I had purchased at Target (which was already long gone… the plastic front had leaked water and rotted the terminals inside, while still on vacation).

So Target was good for a cheap, throw away waste of money flashlight that solved the immediate need at a time when product satisfaction was a very low priority. Did Google similarly offer the same kind of experience?

Yes, it did. I realize now I started Googling in the info/entertainment style because my expectations for Google to actually help me locate a place to buy a flashlight were very low. I did try direct, shop-now searches, with poor results I describe below. Maybe I Google’d because I’m old and that’s how I was trained. Maybe if the browser would just let me type in “best tactical LED flashlight new in 2012 that is also adequate as a general purpose vacation flashlight” and then it would send me to reviews of tactical flashlights that regular folks (who never actually meet up with Talibans) use when on vacation, that would have been perfect. But who delivers those kinds of results?

Maybe I shouldnt have turned to Google. At less than 140 characters, “best tactical LED flashlight new in 2012 that is also adequate as a general purpose vacation flashlight?” is a valid tweet. But my twitter audience isn’t adequately skilled to deliver the answer. Neither is my Facebook “community”, lol.

I suppose I could have added a hashtag… to alert the Taliban-prepared guys who are otherwise like me, that I needed help in a way they could provide off-the-cuff at no expense to themselves, for which I would be grateful. But I’d probably need multiple hashtags. Maybe #notaliban or #killtaliban plus #flashlight or #shopping? Sadly, the twitter ecosystem is far too young and undeveloped to work properly yet. I’m still all alone with my needs.

Too bad Google’s broken. Before I went to Target I hit Google for “flashlight townname” and “LED flashlight townname” and “flashlights near townname” and “tactical gear townname” and “camping gear townname” and a whole set of other local searches intended to surface a list of stores near townname that sold flashlights (and other tactical gear etc). It was a perfect opportunity for magic to flow out from Mountain View through the Internet tubes:

“my search returned a list of local small businesses near the town I was vacationing in, which sold flashlights. The listings included the store name, a snippet describing their emphasis (camping gear, tactical gear, hardware store, etc) and star ratings from other people just like me. The listings showed the hours, whether the stores were currently open or closed, and links for driving directions. There were even reviews from real people just like me, about how they were treated as customers, how clean the stores were, and whether they actually had the items in stock when they shopped.”

But it didn’t. Even though Google pormises to deliver on all of the above with it’s local and global search results, it doesn’t. For me, Google returned a list that included a hotel web site (with a reviewer talking about having needed a flashlight to see a spider outside his window), a local National Park (which had a mention of a flashlight on it somewhere), a very outdated and useless Yahoo! directory listing for camping, a manufacturer of motorcycle parts in a nearby town (?), and a host of online shopping sites that had seo optimized subdomains on townname and product item. Google wisely put them last in the list of page 1 results (sigh).

Random thoughts… search could be so good, if only someone would make it so. I suppose if they made 10 or 20 million dollars, they could afford to hire a few good engineers and programmers and make something that really works. But instead, they get hundreds of millions (or billions even), and get so distracted by the need to get EVEN MORE that they blow it. I recall there was a company that specialized in indexing store inventories and providing a search experience that included store inventory and would have been PERFECT for me… and then it was bought by Google. Something like 3 years ago.

The web search experience sucks, and I doubt any of these “big” tech companies are going to fix that.

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