Engines to Ecosystems: How Gates & Schmidt Have Turned Around the Blank Boxes
At the recently held Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Los Angeles (July 10-14), the software megacorp announced “revolutionary” upgrades to its web search engine Bing in time for Christmas 2011. I watched the keynote videos and my jaw went slack with what Steve Ballmer was enumerating. With its tie-up with Skype, and subsequently with Facebook, the future of Bing search looked more like a mini-ecosystem, than a simple query software.
So, what will Bing allow users? Well, unlimited options to personalize the way they access information, news and entertainment. What it translates into is a theme park where visitors would never have to leave or visit a neighboring one as all their joyrides are made available in one space. Sounds good? Not to me. The future Bing would allow me to not just casually search for information about a stadium, but also allow me to search for upcoming events and games, check for seats and ticket availability and reserve parking space for my car on game night!
What megacorps are good at doing is provide a service that makes users dependent on it. There is no compulsion or brainwashing, neither is the product or service life-saving, but the convenience of use and the perks thrown in as side dishes to the service sure make it difficult for users to opt-out. Since when did a simple blank box make a bid to take over our web-engagement? In the near future, I would have no choice but to subscribe to a Bing or Google-like service to get my tickets booked or reserve space for my parking, else my neighbor and the larger public would beat me to the best seats.
A bigger concern for me would be security, privacy and who has rights to access and track my activities online. We lull ourselves into complacency when we are told that there are ‘bots’ and ‘machines’ and ‘engines’ who sift and filter information, not the all-seeing human eyes. This perception only helps perpetuating a myth about secure online transactions – and businesses and megacorps survive on the longevity of that myth. How else do they get more customers willing to share ever more amounts of information about their personal lives that will help a Microsoft or Google to cater to their needs?
Let’s rewind a bit. The evolution from search engine to a personalized ecosystem began with a blank box.
In the beginning: a blank box
Discovery and randomness defined how we browsed the net in the early-to-late-90s. We didn’t know the destination and neither did we have reference to many / specific webpages, and so we wandered about, landing up at the links that keywords took us to. Here, I talk about the ordinary home net user, not the geek or the techie who understood https, urls, browsers, algorithms and webpages. The intent was to simply read, learn and discover what was out there (well, certainly didn’t come across The Truth!).
We have come a long way from Lycos and Alta Vista. Did we even understand how browsers worked and why search engines are not synonymous with a Netscape, Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox! User interface has evolved and search engines are now in-built to a browser. There’s less of discovery and more of specific destination travel. More of keyword searches for news and analysis, music videos and job searches than lazy discoveries that Google’s ‘Surprise Me’ allows – pancakes, Black Widow Spider, Russian folklore. This is how I progressed with my understanding of information access online.
Today, I am more choosy about the search engine I use – and the browser options for various tasks from seeking information, researching for work or live streaming entertainment shows. Experience shows me that Yahoo! and Bing searches yield specific results to a query – say censorship in China – compared to Google’s or Ask Jeeves. Let’s not forget that search results vary when we use keywords in combination with different characters and operators: “Censorship“+China | China+censorship (no quotes) | *censorship in China* | These are the most frequently used strings, but we also have the dollar symbol ($), the negative sign (-) that are considered aids to enhancing search queries, but really, end up fragmenting the outputs further for every user.
Something about an echo-chamber?
What conclusion am I to draw when I see a particular weblink is number one on Google’s search results, but ranks number eight on Bing’s? We are aware of paid ads, sponsored links, promoted content and the brains behind the algorithms that filter information for me. We also know that personalized searches are now a reality. So, if I am a news editor and Google keeps tracks of all the online publications I subscribe to, then it would also know exactly which search result to propel to the top 10 – and get corporations and advertisers a better vantage point to track their potential customer. Again, this is about perpetuating a business ecosystem, not about making my life convenient.
Do the variations concern me? Yes, as a matter of amateur research curiosity about how search engines create information silos for different geographic locations and net users. Since I use only Google Search, is my information tree mappable to others who search for similar keywords and work in the same profession. On the other hand, as a reader or consumer, will all Google users have one set of information about Censorship in China, where others would believe what they have read on Bing? Are search bots really the source of all web knowledge and filters? Why are machines more trustworthy than humans? Cyber-ethicist, especially, are concerned about the echo-chamber effects of being hemmed in by a search ecosystem that only shows us what we want to see through the use of personalized and customized search results.
It’s not about discovery anymore and much to do with brand loyalty. If you trust Google’s public image more than Microsoft’s, chances are you will have a Googlized way of looking at things; it’s not just Google’s search engine you access, but Google+, Android phones, cloud apps and other networking devices the company will release and connect to a Google ecosystem that we will be forced to use for its convenience. Can you imagine using an Apple iPhone with Android OS? Yes! Do you see that happening? No!
Time for a meta-search engine? Let’s call it…
The way search engines function, they are not liable to deliver the most accurate results. Webpage links are displayed based on “astronomically” complex calculations of page rank, number of visitors to a website, accurate title and url keywords, and of course, promoted content (which is highlighted as paid sponsorship). But how do you define a search? Is it merely a collection of various items sourced from different places? Of course not! Searches are very specific and must remain so for the purpose of authenticity. While Google and Bing don’t claim to be expert researchers – merely finders and aggregators of what their search bots are able to find – users have appropriated these search services as a mecca for accuracy and completeness. Accuracy of information today is – falsely – determined by the number of people who popularize a search engine and trust its results enough to use again and again. Credibility in effect, rests in the hands of corporations who are not liable by law or rules to caution users to not blindly trust all that the search engine collates for them.
This blog is not a rant against Google or Bing, and neither does it lament the foolishness of the information consumerist society that is just too lazy to look beyond the Top Five search result links of a search engine. But it upsets me to think that most of us get hoodwinked into trusting the products of a corporation merely because of a good User Interface and excellent marketing and in-your-face advertising. How about if we hold the search giants liable for the information their bots aggregate? How about we hold them accountable for turning up phishing, fraudulent or spam websites in their results? Isn’t un-asked for advertisements a breach of our privacy rights?
If each of the megacorps have resources to search over a billion webpages individually, imagine what would be at the disposal of users if all of them could combine their search algorithm for a Meta Search Engine? There would be no duplicity of information, no variations in data output, no geographic demarcations or cut-offs and no information silos generated within each community of users – just one meta search engine, which everyone can refer to, from any country, searchable and translatable in any language and media (audio, text, images, pages). While we do have meta search sites that give aggregate the search results of the top four search giants, it once again comes down to the “best of the ability” of the able search bots.
This is also a signal for the legal teams – cyber regulators – to step in and start a citizen-led discussion on what should be the common minimum of expectations from a web service that every net user has come to rely on. If access to Internet is considered a basic human right, access to a trusted, credible and accurate search engine should also be part and parcel of that instrumental policy.
– Nilofar Ansher