Wadhwa: Google Search Still Needs ‘A Lot More Work’

Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Duke University, wrote a highly-touted piece at Tech Crunch on New Year’s Day about how Google search had become almost unusable. Wadhwa said this about Google searches he wanted to do:

Almost every search takes you to websites that want you to click on links that make them money, or to sponsored sites that make Google money. There’s no way to do a meaningful chronological search.

Google has responded to this blistering criticism and the damaging accounts published in the New York Times by revamping its search algorithm substantially. Wadhwa is not impressed and went on Bloomberg yesterday to say why. The video clip is below.

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Wadhwa says "Google has a lot more work cut out for them" since companies like eHow, which he characterizes as ‘mostly garbage’ still is coming up near the top of searches. The interesting bit is that Wadhwa says Google is making money from this dysfunction. I made a similar argument about site scrapers in December:

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This is how it works: site scrapers’ entire business model involves copying every single post from leading news sources and re-publishing in order to earn advertising dollars from Google and other sites. They accomplish this by using WordPress plugins that allow them to automatically post the content of RSS feeds which other sites publish…

Ironically, it is because of high rankings in Google’s search algorithm that these sites are even able to garner traffic and earn dollars from Internet advertising … Apparently, all you have to do to make money on the Internet is set up a website, install some plugins to scrape good content elsewhere, make sure you optimize your site for search rankings, and contact Google to include you in their list of trusted sources. It’s as good as free money – and often Google is collecting the advertising money along with you.

In my view, it is just this kind of situation which will ultimately win Google more regulatory scrutiny because Google dominates both search and advertising online. I am surprised that they have not taken steps to eliminate this kind of situation.

Site Scrapers Find Free Money on the Web

Wadhwa’s argument is that Google has become complacent due to its predominant position in search. He contends that this has allowed their search product to deteriorate. He warns that Google could go the way of AltaVista, the first big search engine on the web and recently shut down by Yahoo!. In the middle of the last decade, search was not seen as a hot vertical for venture capital. But now entrants like Blekko are getting into the search market for the first time in years. Sure there have been search flameouts like Cuil, but Wadhwa argues that Google’s complacency will eventually cost it.

Here’s my take on the issue.

I found Facebook a good way to get answers to questions. When I was looking to buy an e-reader, I just put up a question on my status asking what e-reader I should get and I got a ton of different responses from people I know and respect all in one place. That’s the power of Facebook. (We got a Kindle, by the way). You can get the same sort of Feedback from Twitter if you have a lot of twitter followers. But Facebook is a more intimate and personal environment and I suspect Google sees more of certain types of search moving to Facebook in this way. When you hear the rumours about Google or Apple buying Facebook, the compelling part of an acquisition comes from these kinds of networking opportunities that in Google’s case it would want to sell advertising against. Apple might benefit for altogether different reasons.

Desperately Seeking Search

Bloomberg’s Deirdre Bolton make exactly this point as well suggesting asking Facebook friends about vacation hotel recommendations. and puts the question to Wadhwa who agrees that the intimate and personal environment of Facebook offers serious crowdsourcing advantages to generic search. My point is that if your network is large enough, you could ostensibly get the data you need in a way that you are more likely to trust than just doing an Internet search. For example, Facebook could create a feature which allows a user to ask a question that goes out to all her friends – and friends of friends to increase the network effects – whereby all of the answers are ranked by number of likes they receive from the group.  This is the idea that Quora is using, but in a generic environment. I am suggesting that Facebook would be a more ideal place to use the Quora crowdsourcing functionality because you are talking about friends and friends of friends – and that builds trust.

Google is concentrated on Microsoft as its main competitor. But social networks could end run Google by developing compelling search functionality. Moreover, Google is annoyed by the Facebook walled garden model because it has meant a huge amount of data regarding what users are doing on the web is unavailable to Google but is available to Facebook. This is a double advantage for Facebook that Twitter does not have since most Tweets are searchable by anyone and the Twitter network is less personal.

Look at the ‘Like’ button and how it has proliferated around the web. There is a huge data mining opportunity there to help customize search for web users find the information they want. In my view, the Internet is first and foremost about search. it’s about seeking and finding information by any effective means available.

Personally, I am excited about the opportunities ahead that social networking presents. Right now, Facebook is shooting itself in the foot by compromising user trust with dubious moves on privacy issues. However, if Facebook plays its cards right and concentrates on search it could be a winner – and that is a big threat to Google.

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2 Comments
  1. jimh009 says

    Hi Edward,

    Google has its problems, for sure. But the latest update – the “Farmers Update” – is definitely a step in the right direction.

    I also think that Facebook is a poor substitute for Google or Bing or other we-wide search engines. Google is “web wide.” Facebook might be fine to use to find what other Facebook users think about a hotel or a certain type of peanut butter or a recipe. But Facebook isn’t the place to go searching for deep content information. The content on Facebook, at the end of the day, isn’t much better or deeper than what used to be on MySpace.

    There’s a reason you put this blog on your own domain – not put all the information on the facebook.com domain as a “Facebook Blog.” It’s your domain name, your content, and the site can’t suddenly be pulled or shut down by a faceless entity called Facebook due to a sudden shift in some corporate policy. Plus you can fully control it, from it’s appearance to what is shown around it, as well as monetize the content however you want.

    Moreover, many people – including myself – aren’t on Facebook and have no desire to become part of the social networking crowd. I’m not about to provide all that info facebook wants, and deal with the headaches of managing yet another what amounts to a glorified personal home page – just for the privilege of being able to make a web search.

    Finally, social networking sites come and go. MySpace was the top dog not that many years ago, now they are forgotten about. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to realize that Facebook’s reign as the top social networking site will someday end. Knowing this, would you put ALL the content you have here – on this site – up on some social networking site or on Facebook?

    Searches in social networking do have their place if the social networking site is large enough, as Facebook certainly is. But social networking search is no substitute for a full web-search for many, and I’d argue most, search terms.

    1. Edward Harrison says

      It’s funny you mention Facebook search because I was just thinking about it. I agree that search will probably never move over to a network like Facebook in its entirety simply because it is closed. Moreover, the kind of search I referenced has a longer lead time. Offen people need immediate results, so they will use web wide search. However, clearly there is a search opportunity for Facebook that they can use to Deepening and broaden their appeal. That is what we saw with Google as they moved beyond search and I expect we should see the same with social networks.

  2. Anonymous says

    Hi Edward,

    Google has its problems, for sure. But the latest update – the “Farmers Update” – is definitely a step in the right direction.

    I also think that Facebook is a poor substitute for Google or Bing or other we-wide search engines. Google is “web wide.” Facebook might be fine to use to find what other Facebook users think about a hotel or a certain type of peanut butter or a recipe. But Facebook isn’t the place to go searching for deep content information. The content on Facebook, at the end of the day, isn’t much better or deeper than what used to be on MySpace.

    There’s a reason you put this blog on your own domain – not put all the information on the facebook.com domain as a “Facebook Blog.” It’s your domain name, your content, and the site can’t suddenly be pulled or shut down by a faceless entity called Facebook due to a sudden shift in some corporate policy. Plus you can fully control it, from it’s appearance to what is shown around it, as well as monetize the content however you want.

    Moreover, many people – including myself – aren’t on Facebook and have no desire to become part of the social networking crowd. I’m not about to provide all that info facebook wants, and deal with the headaches of managing yet another what amounts to a glorified personal home page – just for the privilege of being able to make a web search.

    Finally, social networking sites come and go. MySpace was the top dog not that many years ago, now they are forgotten about. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to realize that Facebook’s reign as the top social networking site will someday end. Knowing this, would you put ALL the content you have here – on this site – up on some social networking site or on Facebook?

    Searches in social networking do have their place if the social networking site is large enough, as Facebook certainly is. But social networking search is no substitute for a full web-search for many, and I’d argue most, search terms.

    1. Edward Harrison says

      It’s funny you mention Facebook search because I was just thinking about it. I agree that search will probably never move over to a network like Facebook in its entirety simply because it is closed. Moreover, the kind of search I referenced has a longer lead time. Offen people need immediate results, so they will use web wide search. However, clearly there is a search opportunity for Facebook that they can use to Deepening and broaden their appeal. That is what we saw with Google as they moved beyond search and I expect we should see the same with social networks.

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