Online search:  So fast … so convenient … so imperfect.

There’s no question that search engines have made the process of gaining knowledge, and researching products and services, extremely easy — often nearly effortless.  The search bots do the work for us, helping us find the answers we’re seeking in the blink of an eye.

So what’s not to love about search? 

The thing about search engines is that the algorithms “reward” the purported wisdom of crowds – particularly since there’s more social interaction on websites than ever these days.  It’s one thing for developers to optimize their websites for search – but there’s also the behaviors of those doing the searching and interacting with those same websites and pages. 

Whether it’s tracking how much time visitors spend on a page as a proxy for relevance, or how visitors may interact with a page by rating products or services, the bots are continually refining the search results they serve up in an effort to deliver the highest degree of “relevance” to the greatest number of people.

But therein lies the rub.  Popularity and algorithms drive search rankings.  If people confine viewing of search results to just the first page – which is what so many viewers do —  it limits their exposure to what might actually be more valuable information. 

Over time, viewers have been “trained” to not to look beyond the first page of online results – and often not beyond the top five entries.  That’s very convenient and time-efficient, but it means that better information, which is sometimes going to be found in the middle of search results rather than at the top, is completely missed.

As we rely more on ever-improving software, it’s tempting to assume that the search algorithms are going to be more and more airtight – and hence more effective than human-powered expertise. 

But that isn’t the case – at least not yet.  And a lot of things can slip through the gap that exists between the perception and the reality.

2 thoughts on “Online search:  So fast … so convenient … so imperfect.

  1. Being lazy makes things tricky.

    If your question is vague, you may find yourself looking at a site you didn’t intend. For instance, “How to upload streams to HP?” will give better results than “How to upload streams?”, which will lead you to all sorts of apps not always identified as “Ads”.

    Even if you are more specific, the list of obvious questions which appears below the first few advertising links tempts one to click on one of them for convenience. “Oh”, you will think, “somebody else is asking my question”. Well, yes, but the answer may be attached to an app you don’t want.

    You may be far down the first page before you find the search you really intended. Beyond the first page will be more esoteric answers, but most mistakes occur at the top of the first page. Knowing what you want has a lot to do with what you get.

  2. This is a bigger problem because of Google manipulating the search results to favor some sources and opinions over others.

    Case in point: If you “Google” asking if you should get a vaccine if you’ve already had COVID-19, all of the answers on the first page tell you that you should.

    Does everyone agree with that?

    On Page Two of the search results, the Cleveland Clinic study supporting natural immunity as being stronger is displayed — along with a false article about recovered people being more likely to get re-infected.

    This is where the “everyone agrees” statements come from. If it is all over the first page on a Google search, then it has to be true.

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