Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Why Search Engines Suck, Part One


Search engines do many things, but there are really only two that concern us when we search the Internet. The first is how they handle our search requests, i.e., their search methodology. The second is what they are searching when we request a search. If you didn’t know, what they search is not directly the Internet but rather their indexed cache of the Internet. Their indexing methodology is how they create this indexed cache.

To say there are problems with these two methodologies is a colossal understatement. But let’s take them one at a time.

The main purpose of most Web pages—and the main reason we search them—is their content. On a Web page, content is usually all of a piece (like what you’re reading now). What’s not content on this page are those text items to the right (Pages, Links, Categories, etc.) and at the bottom (Links and Theme information). Why would anyone want to search those text items, which are extraneous to the page’s content? Or any words in an advertisements appearing on this or any other page?

If content is king, then why are search engines revolting? (Some metaphors are irresistible.) The problem is they index everything on the page, not just the content. As a result, search engines treat every word on the page—including the aforementioned text items to the right of this page—as roughly equal. So if you were searching for “free search engines,” this page would be a hit—because the word “free” appears as one of those text items to the right. The page is a hit even though that word is totally irrelevant to the main content of this page.

I’ll say it again: words appearing anywhere on a Web page count as hits—even if they appear in ads. How does this methodology help us in our searches? It doesn’t. But then, search engines are not in business to help us quickly find what we’re looking for. As I wrote in this blog on 1/30/12, search engines have “turned focused searching into aimless browsing.” Their business is advertising, and their job is to keep you searching—and seeing those ads.

Next week: search methodology.

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