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Google Instant – Faster Yes, Smarter No

Google launched Google Instant a couple of days ago to much fanfare.  For sure you are now saving several seconds per search as they say. For those who rely on Google on a daily basis and who spend much of their day searching and assembling results this is no doubt a small but significant productivity boom.  But for the vast majority of those who search only several times a day how much can several seconds add up to be?  Not much.

What Google did not do, but would have preferred to see them concentrate their formidable 25,000 person workforce on, was make search actually smarter.  In semantic technology circles the classic example is to search the word “jaguar.”  Google Instant brings back all kinds of “jaguars” before I finish typing the word.  But it does no better than before in the search results.  I still get cars and cats.  Try it yourself.  You will also note the AdSense ads make no sense at all as they repeat the same mistake and display offers for cars and cats.

Despite this simple example, the problem is prevalent.  This ambiguity problem in fact comes in three flavors.

  • First, words that have more than one meaning.  Google is a keyword system.  That means it treats “jaguar” only as a token – the letters j-a-g-u-a-r, a sequence of symbols without any further attempt to understand anything about the word.  How many words have more than one meaning?  Crack open the dictionary and the answer falls from any page — almost every noun and verb in any language.  So the problem is large.
  • Second, different words that are in fact the same concept.  Here is an example “disability legislation” and “equal opportunity law” are complex terms but mean the same thing.  Again, Google only treats them as longer combinations of letters.  No connection between them.  You have to know they are connected, remember to enter both terms and know how to correctly enter both concepts using complex Boolean logic.  By the way, I’m not sure that Google Instant allows those who are practiced at good Boolean logic to do so.
  • Third, words and concepts that are hierarchical.  This means a search term like “organization” is broad and includes examples like “company”, “trade union” and “charity.”  So I might get far more than I bargained for with a broad search term.  On the other hand, if I only use the term “charity” I miss “company and “trade union.”  So now I have shot too low in the hierarchy.  Again, my only correction in a keyword based system is to use complex Boolean logic.

So sure Google Instant is a step forward in search, but only a small step.  How about making search smarter next go round?

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