Do We Want a Smarter Search Engine?

by , Sep 28, 2004, 12:00 AM
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Search engines are knocking on the door of the future. The 800-pound gorillas of search and brash new upstarts like Blinkx and Gurunet are working to find a way to make search more intuitive, ubiquitous, and intelligent.

Someday, search will be interwoven with everything we do and consequentially, we won't lift a finger. Links to the sites we're looking for will suddenly appear in a discrete search pane or a pop-up window. It's inevitable.

Or is it? Is this what we as search users want? Do we want to hand control over to an omniscient, eerily cheerful search assistant that knows far too much about our user patterns and personal tastes?

Friendly Search Engine Seeking Single Middle Aged Woman

The personalization of search has been bandied about as the next big step forward in the industry. We need (so we are told) search engines that get to know us and what we like. Blinkx is already heading down this road, and Microsoft has a team of engineers busy in their Cambridge, England lab working on making their brand of search more attuned to the user and the job currently at hand. If you look at the type of people Google hires, you'll find the following interest areas featured prominently: profiling, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

But to make these search enhancements work to their full potential, we crawl onto the very slippery slope of user profiling. As the search engine observes us, it can create a profile of our interests, usage patterns, and other very personal information. It can then use this information to make its search results more relevant to the individual user.

Marketing Gold, Privacy Dynamite

The question is what happens to this profile? Obviously, each profile is worth its weight in gold to advertisers. With information, they can target their message to exactly the right audience. But even if search technologies offer this capability, the vast majority of providers have resisted the temptation.

The Google Toolbar has been around for four years, and if you install the advanced version, the End User License Agreement says that the toolbar will send information about every URL you visit back to Google.

While this is for the relatively benign purpose of retrieving that site's page rank and other information, the fact is that Google has the ability to track each and every Web page you visit. At least Google is up front about letting you know. Other search tool bars and spyware apps aren't quite so ethical.

Suranga Chandratillake, the CTO of Blinkx, indicated that they had the ability to incorporate a fairly basic level of artificial intelligence into the product to make the search suggestions more relevant to the individual user but had chosen not to. "Early users indicated they didn't like this idea. Privacy is a big concern for them."

It appears that search providers and contextual advertising providers are setting wheels in motion that will bring an inevitable head on collision between the wishes of advertisers hoping for better targeted vehicles and users concerned about their privacy.

At this point, the more ethical advertisers are standing on the right side of a gray and sketchy line that's determining what should be done with the mounds of information collected from users.

Either contextual advertising is being served based solely on the nature of the job at hand with no reference to a stored profile, or the information is just sitting there, collecting dust in a data warehouse on some gargantuan hard drive. But no one's saying they're throwing that data away. I get the feeling they're all eyeing each other nervously, waiting for somebody to step over the line.

Search has the ability to become smarter and more helpful. But as anyone old enough to remember "2001: A Space Odyssey" can tell you, an all-knowing, irritatingly polite computer isn't always mankind's best friend.

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