The Internet provides us an overwhelming amount of information. Search engines, with one that binds them all Google, provide us easy access to whatever we want. So far this fairytale.
Search engines are fine to find very specific pieces of information. But they really suck at most of the things I am looking for. Let me provide you with a few examples of where even the mighty Google isn’t able to help me out:
- I’m looking for a specialist on the subject of< and then you can name the subject>
- I am looking for a vacation for my whole family. We are with four children, so we need an apartment for 6 people (wow that narrows it down). I want to book a flight, sit together, get transportation to the apartment and enjoy ourselves at the beach for 14 days
- I want to know if product x is any good
- I am in need of a computer specialist. Who wants to come work at my company, here is the CV I’m looking for
- My 5 yr old child is looking up information for a school project about pussycats (ooops)
- Why do people use Facebook, or Twitter, or MySpace, or Skype, or,… why?
I could probably go on for ever. Search engines either provide me with a gazillion results which no human can possibly go through to find the answer they are looking for. Or the search engine isn’t capable to provide me with an exact answer (take the holiday or specialist example). The main reason for it is that search engines are actually pretty dumb. They process text, to see what is written somewhere, look at images, links, and have some fancy pagerank calculation to decide if a piece of information could be important. But, despite of all the smart algorithm, they really suck at interpreting information for us. I just tagged this article with the word influenza. I’m not really writing about it, but Google will find it for you if you want to know something about it.
Humans are in that specific aspect much better interpreting machines. We don’t have the time or processing capabilities to index and remember the entire web (neither does Google), so we are stuck with machines to do the work for us.
Many initiatives have been taken to overcome these issues with search engines. We now have too many vacation portals, where you can book vacations (but not for 6 trust me, you are suddenly left with almost no choice). There are product portals with “user experience” reports. But who can I trust?
I was looking for a new espresso machine on the Internet. I checked a few machines and then went to these comparison sites to see what other users thought of the machines. Total waste of time. Everyone contradicts each other, the very positive ones sound like a commercial written out, and the negative ones are usually dissatisfied customers with one bad experience, or employees form a competing product that want to nail the competition. So, I ended up going to a store and listening to the sales person there. He let me taste different coffees made in different espresso machines. This experience can’t be beaten by anything on-line.
And we also have Wikipedia. Wikipedia probably needs no more introduction as the best know on-line encyclopedia build by anyone that wants to contribute. For that very same reason you may want to be a bit skeptical about the content it provides. Not everyone is an expert, and numerous examples of censorship and pranks have been noted when analysing who is actually contributing knowledge to Wikipedia. It contains a fast amount of information on an almost uncountable number of topics.
Google has decided to build their own version of that. They call it KNOL or a unit of knowledge. The idea behind it isn’t just to provide us with more information, it is a tool to help people share information. And while I welcome the initiative, I already know it won’t answer any of the questions that really matter. It will be yet another great source of information, structured, probably written by people that are experts. But as will almost anything on the web, there will be too much of it. And pretty soon we need the Google Search engine and pageranking system to find anything on KNOL.
I have found a much easier and better way to get answers to the questions that really matter. I use Google to find the address and phone number of a vet I rarely visit. But if I want to know more about something that really matters to me, I always turn to people. Friends, family, colleagues from work, people I know from the web, or my blog. Anyone. There are 2 reasons why I always get better results there.
- I trust the judgement of people I know or have interacted with before. Not only because they are knowledgeable, but also because they know me! They act as a filter to the fast amounts of knowledge they have access to and filter out that information they think might be interesting to me
- Finding information is good, interacting with someone about it is better. I find that if I talk to a person I always gain more knowledge than simply reading about it. It is good to hear a friend tell me about his experiences with his family when he went on holiday to a destination I might go. Or to hear an expert in Social Networks explain to me what is really important underneath them. You can’t find that using a search engine.
I did an experiment once in a research facility of the company I work for. We got the consent of a number of people and, fully automated, we used some artificial intelligence algorithms to analyse what they were mailing to other people. The idea was to see if their communication patters could provide us a knowledge profile about that person. Not surprisingly we found that people tend to interact on things they have knowledge of, or have questions about. While the information might not directly answer you question, it does help you to find an expert on the matter.
So my advice to you is simple. When you need something fast and it isn’t really important? Go ahead, use Google. When you need more in-depth knowledge? Wikipedia, KNOL or any other information gathering site is fine. If you want understanding, or need something you care about? Forget the above. Call a friend, Skype or Twitter a person you know, go to conferences, meeting places, have a coffee with a total stranger and be prepared to learn things you didn’t know before!
Wikipedia, KNOL, who needs them?