So I just had my morning derailed by some polemic about search over on the MSDN blog. Don't worry -- it was linked to from Hacker News; I wouldn't normally go their on my own volition. Dr. James Whittaker, a "a technology executive focused on making the web a better place for users and developers", wrote an article called "Why I Hate Search". Okay, James. Why do you hate search?

The word 'search' is a negative word. It fairly reeks of loss and effort. You lose your car keys and you search for them. Your pet runs away and you search for her. Having to search implies loss. It implies effort. Search is a means to an end. You search to rescue; you seek to find. There is little that is pleasant about the process itself. The only time to feel good about a search is when it ends, successfully.

With a heavy sigh, I continue reading. I sludge through a subjective, nebulous paragraph espousing the author's opinion on the connotations of the term "search" versus the term "find". He cites "searching" for keys when you lose them and "searching" for pets when they run away as reasons why the term "search" is so awful. Let's pause for a minute. The difference between calling an application a "search engine" versus a "find engine" is even more trivial than pragmatics or semantics; it is a marketing problem, and has no effect on the ultimate functionality of such a utility.

So beyond marketing issues, which sites like Bing and Ask have previously attempted to tackle (in my opinion, rather unsuccessfully), what is the problem with search? Dr. Whittaker feels that search is broken, in summation, for the following reasons:

  • Search engines serve up search results pages -- they don't send you directly to what you're looking for
  • Search engines do this because their revenue is largely based on ad delivery hosted on the search results page
  • Large companies that are centered on a search application have no incentive to innovate beyond this paradigm, because doing so would cause a loss of revenue. This means we must look to outsiders for further innovation on search (e.g. Apple's Siri)

This line of reasoning is patently absurd. This assumes that for most queries:

  1. There is only one correct page for any given query.
  2. The user knows exactly what result they want.
  3. The user is 100% right in that this result is appropriate both for himself or herself, as well as for all other users. Furthermore, they are right in that there are no results remotely as relevant as their desired best result for same query.

I'm a little surprised that the kind of ambiguities that make serving a results page necessary escape the author. He is a self proclaimed "former Googler, former professor and former startup founder". Dr. Whittaker readily conflates search, which is as much about discovery as it is about navigation, with mind-reading. To his credit, I probably should have just stopped reading after he devoted more than one melodramatic paragraph to the semantics of the term "search".

Here's an excellent example of everything I find wrong with this article: after having some questions about the actual usage statistics in these contexts, I used Google to get some numbers on how many documents match these exact phrases. I used the verbatim tool and found numbers identical to the default setting, so let's naively assume that it's applicable across all of the hidden variables for every other user in the search engine.

"looking for my keys": 313,000 results
"searching for my keys": 104,000 results

"looking for my pet": 4,460,000 results
"searching for my pet": 538,000 results

I may not have combed through every result to make sure that they relate to the context of lost pets and keys, but at least I'm using real data to inform my opinion. Using this information, we can see that the exact straw men the author constructed don't hold under their own weight. If he had tried to be in any way experimental about his argument, he could have saved at least two people from writing an acerbic blog post. Dr. Whittaker makes the same mistake that the generative linguists have made for decades: informing what they believe to be objective arguments on intuition alone.

The fact that I was able to access this information through a search engine unravels Whittaker's perceived intentions of the general purpose of search. Let's not even get into the "discovery" use case, whereby an individual seeks to learn about a topic by accessing multiple relevant documents on an identical term (really, what is the one right page for "Napoleon" or "The Beatles"?). I think one example of what makes search a robust and useful platform in its current state is counterpoint enough.

In my use case, I made a search not in hopes of accessing a single page, but in search of information about the term itself, and its presence on the web -- search metadata, if you will, that is extremely helpful in making decisions about future search behavior, and the importance of each document relative to the other. Google is not just a "finding" engine; it's a tool for research, and a warehouse of knowledge. If you want to get a single page and skip the SERPs, just click the "I'm feeling lucky" button and quit complaining.