Miffed and Confused

Have been on a six month blogging hiatus, and wouldn’t you know it.. it took another fun Google article to pull me back.  It is a recent FastCompany piece, entitled Google to Zuckerberg, Bing: We Still Innovate.  The premise of the article is that Facebook has recently partnered with Bing to deliver social search and cites Google’s slowed rate of innovation as one of the primary motivators for this move.  This has left Google, one source says, “miffed and confused as to how Zuckerberg figured they weren’t innovating”.

Perhaps I could be of assistance.

The article cites a number of reasons why Google is miffed and confused about Facebook’s stance: “The company has more people working on search than ever before”.  It has a “list of 100 [search] projects”.  And “last year, the team launched about 550 changes to its search engine, and in September, unveiled Instant, one of the largest overhauls to its engine ever.”  The article continues:

Every year, he says, Google runs thousands of experiments. These experiments include just about everything you could imagine: changing the color of a link or button; improving Arabic semantics; building real-time search; or creating Google Instant, the results-as-you-type feature. As Singhal says, it’s simply a function of having more resources: His team is able to test hypotheses faster.  ”We couldn’t do these things five years back even if we wanted to,” he explains. “We didn’t have enough engineers. But by having a bigger team today, we have new ideas, new people, and the capacity to execute on those ideas.”

So why would Facebook say that Google isn’t innovating, especially when 550 changes have been made?  I think the next quote, by Google Fellow Amit Singhal, illustrates the problem perfectly:

Fast Company broached the subject recently with Google’s Amit Singhal, who oversees Google’s ranking and algorithm team. “The main reason why Google is where it is today is that we have been able to make huge changes to our search–and are able to do it while running this big search engine,” he says “We used to compare that to changing an engine on a jet while it’s flying. Over the years, we’ve not only mastered changing the engine while flying, but have been able to change the seats without the users noticing. That’s the beauty of how we innovate. You’ve suddenly given everyone first class seats, and they didn’t even wake up.”

The first problem is that because (most of) those 550 changes happen while the users are still “asleep”, users don’t actually notice them.  Google doesn’t exactly go out of its way to make many of its search improvements visible to the user, and so it’s often difficult to tell whether or not something has happened.  As a user, I personally don’t like that approach, because a change that is invisible or purposely hidden is a change that I as a user have no control over, and am not able to change back or alter further.  And as I argued in an earlier post, the way to creating passionate search users is not to give them luxury seats without waking them up.  Instead, the way to create passionate search users is to give them search tools that give users a path in which they can grow, improve, and get better at searching.  Do users get better at flying, or at seeing and comprehending an information landscape from 30,000 feet, if they’ve got luxury chairs?  Arguably not.  If anything, the luxury chairs make it harder for users to sit upright, to have a “leaning forward”, engaged experience.  Users are less inclined, pun intended, to be active participants in the experience.  All the decision are being made for them.

But let’s set the user perception issue aside for a moment.  Even if the user doesn’t notice those 550 improvements at a conscious level, that doesn’t change the fact that Google has innovated 550 times over the past year, does it?  Of course not.  The innovations have still happened, they exist.  But what innovations are they?  Well, as Singhal’s airplane analogy suggests, they are improvements that make the existing experience faster and a little more comfortable.  Cushier seats.  A better shade of link blue.  More legroom.  5 pixel margins rather than 2 pixel margins.  A faster plane with a more powerful engine.  Google Instant.

But at the end of the day, it’s still a plane.  And the view of the information landscape is still from 30,000 feet, even if that view is an Instant view.  What if instead of getting the high level overview of relevant information, the user wants to dig down into a narrow, deep, richer vein?  What if the user wants to mine for precious information ores, rather than fly over the mountain five miles overhead?  What if the user wants the information retrieval engine to act as a excavator, deep earth drill, or other such heavy mining tool?  Do any of those 550 changes help make the airplane more like an underground drill?  Or do all 550 changes simply make a sleeker, faster airplane?

I’ve talked about this issue of evolutionary vs. long term thinking (improving the airplane, versus changing it into a deep earth drill) in the past.  I’ve also asked for search to change radically, to help me in much harder information seeking tasks such as finding hidden cafes in Prague.  But I think this question of innovation is illustrated perfectly in the following bit from the article:

But what about social search? Facebook teamed with Microsoft, not Google. Does Google have any partnerships planned for social search?  ”I’m glad you asked, because we launched social search about two years or so back,” says Singhal.

When Google launched social search 13.5 months ago (October 26, 2009 to December 9, 2010 is not two years), what they launched was this:

A lot of people write about New York, so if I do a search for [new york] on Google, my best friend’s New York blog probably isn’t going to show up on the first page of my results. Probably what I’ll find are some well-known and official sites. We’ve taken steps to improve the relevance of our search results with personalization, but today’s launch takes that one step further. With Social Search, Google finds relevant public content from your friends and contacts and highlights it for you at the bottom of your search results. When I do a simple query for [new york], Google Social Search includes my friend’s blog on the results page under the heading “Results from people in your social circle for New York.” I can also filter my results to see only content from my social circle by clicking “Show options” on the results page and clicking “Social.”

Having worked in the area of Collaborative Search (see also this) for the past four years, an area that is not unrelated to Social Search, I have long learned to make the following distinction: There is a difference between process and data. Data-based social search is the idea of having content generated by your social circle show up in your results, e.g. your friend’s NY blog.  Process-based social search is the idea of using your friends’ patterns of information seeking behavior to influence the ranking of content from outside of your social circle.

Another way of expressing this distinction is “search of social data” versus “social search of data”.

Showing your friend’s blog when you search for New York is search of social data.  It’s interesting, but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as an innovative, game changing leap.  Social search of data, on the other hand, is a much more radical approach, and much more of a leap.  It affects how one finds every piece of information on the entire web, not just your friends’ blogs.  I started seeing the concept of social search of data appear 4 to 5 years ago, with the work of Barry Smyth, and Microsoft publicly started publishing work in this area around three years ago.  So it does make sense to me that Facebook would partner with a company that has more of a track record in social search of data, rather than search of social data.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying Google doesn’t innovate.  It does.  I am simply trying to explain to those who were miffed and confused why someone would say that.  A better link shade of blue makes the search process more comfortable; it plushes up the airplane seats.  And entire engine rebuild so as to allow instant results makes things faster.  But it doesn’t fundamentally alter the manner in which information is found.  It doesn’t utilize social behaviors to rerank the entire web.  It doesn’t let me dig deeper, and find hidden cafes in Prague.  It just lets me not find those same hidden Prague cafes…faster and more comfortably.

If the engine rebuild around Google Instant was one of the “largest overhauls to its engine ever” as the article says above, and it only quantitatively changes the speed at which results come back rather than qualitatively changing the manner in which information seeking happens, then it is not unreasonable to seek a different type of innovation.  At some point search has to become more than precision@3, more than a fast, comfortable ride.  At some point search has to become a real tool for exploration and growth, for comparison and learning.  At some point, the definition of innovation has to move from step to leap. Google has the engineering chops to make this happen. But do they have the culture?

5 comments to Miffed and Confused

  • @ jeremy
    Good to see you back here. I can’t help thinking that the spotlight has moved from search per se to taming social media data streams in order to get information to people that is more relevant to them in near realtime. Like Flipboard with sort of personalized information coming at you from Facebook, Twitter, traditional media companies and so on. Like a mashup of search. Go to Google when you have to.

  • jeremy

    Dinesh,

    Thanks for the greetings!

    I’m not interested in the spotlight. I was interested in Information Retrieval before Google appeared on the web, and I will be interested in Information Retrieval long after Google has moved on to operating systems, web browsers, mobile phones, games, and whatever else it is they’re doing in their “we do one thing really well: search” business maneuvers.

    I’m passionate about search.

  • As to your last point, Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma has some great case studies around why it’s hard for companies to stop tuning what they have and makes lots of money and focus on something else. And we can’t reaally quibble with Google’s financial success.

    My fave example along these lines from the book was about Lilly (I think), who made incredible (and expensive) breakthroughs in insulin purity by synthesizing from human RNA, whereas a competitor (name escapes me) changed the game entirely by moving from disposable syringes to injection pens.

    It also reminds me of the Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Maybe Google’s product managers are like Henry Ford’s customers.

  • jeremy

    Nope, not trying to argue the financial success. But where’s the love for real Information Retrieval from Google, instead of all these forays into mobile phone operating systems?

    Oh, yeah. Desire for continued financial success trumps IR.

    What has me scratching my head is that this isn’t supposed to be that much of a stretch. It’s not like Google is going into steel girder manufacturing or something completely different. In terms of tweak size, it’s just slightly larger than their normal tweaking. And yet there appears to be a strong unwillingness to get into it.

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