On Wednesday I attended the Executive Round Table on Semantic Search, at the 2009 Semantic Technology Conference. Researchers from Ask, Hakia, Yahoo, Google, Powerset/Bing, and True Knowledge were on the panel. In the next few days I hope to give a longer write-up of the session over on the FXPAL blog. In the meantime I wanted to quickly point out one nugget, and one related Tweet.
The panel covered a large number of topics. But it was inevitable that the moderator would turn to the Google panelist (Peter Norvig) and ask him what he thought about Bing. There has been too much buzz lately for that question not to be asked. I was pleasantly surprised by his answer. I’m not going to risk quoting him, only paraphrasing. And if I misrepresent anything, any mistakes are mine, and not intentional.
[Paraphrase] Norvig’s first answer to the Bing question was to say that he likes the idea of innovation in the user interface. He thinks that there is a lot of room for more such innovation, and for a lot of different reasons. Historically, there has been too much emphasis on getting the ranking right, at the expense of all else. Of course (he added) a quality ranking is something that you absolutely must have. But for too long it has been the only thing that has been worked on, and that needs to change. He thinks Bing has made some good steps, and that there are a lot more that can be made as well.
Wow! This is not the Google that I’ve known for a decade, the Google that has actively shunned most forms of interactivity, feedback, and exploration other than spelling correction. Now, here is someone from the company echoing some of the frustrations that I’ve had, actually saying that too much emphasis has been placed on the ranking alone. I never thought I’d hear that. I am finally beginning to see a different side of the company, an attitudinal shift. This is a very good thing. Norvig continued:
[Paraphrase] He rhetorically asked whether “conversation” (search as a dialogue, interactive search, etc.) is the ultimate user interface. His feeling was that the more you know what you are doing, the more keyword-like your queries are, and the less you need conversation. It is when you don’t know what you are talking about that conversation comes into play.
I agree. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the more you know what you are doing, the more likely it is that you’re doing a known-item query. The more you don’t know, the more you need exploratory search. This is a point most recently reiterated in a JCDL 2009 poster entitled “Designing Exploratory Search Tasks for User Studies of Information Seeking Support Systems“. Many of us here have been clamoring about these issues for years, some folks even for decades. But for the past 10-15 years of web search, there has been little to no acknowledgement of the need for exploratory search, and even less actually done about it. It is encouraging to see the attitude starting to change.
I’ve ranted in the past about how functionality and interactivity is often sacrificed in the name of simplicity. Perhaps increased competition is finally pushing Google out of the simplicity local maximum, and toward bigger, more effective information seeking peaks. One of the more widely re-tweeted tidbits on the #semtech2009 channel was the following:
@philsophygeek A Google employee just told me that Bing was the best thing that ever happened to interface design at Google #semtech2009
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That tweet was mine and, to be fair to the GOOG employee, I don’t think he should be interpreted as saying that Bing is a superior interface to Google. Rather, he was saying that Google designers have dominated search engine design for so long, that they’re stuck in their own paradigms. An outside influence like Bing that presents a reasonable alternative will force Google to rethink some of their interface decisions. I totally agree! Competing interface alternatives will result in more innovation and a better experience for users.
Bing it on!
-Mark Johnson, Bing Program Manager
Mark, that’s exactly what I understood your tweet to mean all along — not that the Google employee was saying Bing was better, but that it finally lit a fire under some of that Google complacency, the complacency (paradigmatic inertia?) that led them to believe that testing 37 shades of blue is “innovation”.
I wrote about it a bit only a couple of months ago, but have had the suspicion for years that their own paradigms outweighed anything that the users did or tried to do or asked for. I.e. a lot of the rules and restrictions around non-minute interface redesign came from top-down decisions and fear of messing up the “magic”, rather than bottom up innovation.
I don’t know who they are, but there have got to be voices internally at Google who have long wanted to do something like this, add richness and value to the search experience. I know there are people there who have to have thought about it, no matter what the official “clean (aka sparse) interface trumps all else” line has been. The time may be right for their coup 😉 Thanks for getting that fire lit, and I look forward to adding Bing to my search engine rotation.
Honestly, I haven’t seen any super-compelling UI innovations to adopt. Don’t get me wrong, faceted search and exploratory search have their place.
I think one hard part is to have an innovative UI you have to focus on a specific user task. The are a variety of tasks that quickly lead to developing application/domain specific interfaces (e.g. planning a trip or finding a hotel, etc…). From those it’s hard to extract a common pattern.
I look forward to hearing more details on the Semantic search panel.
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