For some time now, and for various reasons not all of which I will mention here, my wrath toward Google has been festering. We have allowed Google to extend its insidious tentacles into our lives to the extent that I’m sure some people think they simply can’t live without it. Meanwhile, Google continues to make inroads with its efforts to ultimately manage all of the information entering and exiting our lives. Witness this, for example. Now don’t get me wrong; I use Google all the time. I have a Gmail account and I’m a fan of iGoogle for aggregating news and other RSS feeds. I just don’t want Google to rule the world, and I think it’s getting a little too cocky for its own good.
But this rant isn’t directed at Google as an entity; it’s directed at Google, the bossy search engine that acts as an enabler to the most ignorant of its users. By doing so, it in turn alienates its more intelligent users (you know, the ones who can actually spell and type, and who know what they’re looking for), and cripples its own value as an online finding aid. I’d like to illustrate my point with a pertinent example. For a long time, typing a compound word (e.g. sandpaper) without quotes into Google’s search box would produce only results with that exact word in them. Then Google started including results that included the two separate parts of the compound word (e.g. sand and paper, if they appeared next to each other). At that point, if you only wanted relevant hits with the compound word alone (not as two separate words), you had to enclose the word in double quotes. However, at some point last year (I think), Google decided to go one step further and always include hits that had the two separate parts of the compound word even if you enclosed the compound word in quotes when you searched it.
Now, this may not seem like a major issue at first glance. And with many compound words, it’s not, simply because the word itself is so common that it will dominate the relevancy ranking system, and the hits with the compound word split into two smaller words will appear few and far between, mostly in the deeper pages of the results list. However, in today’s world, idiomatic language aberrations constantly appear in everyday speech, despite the fact that they may not be “real” words. In addition, many company names, publication and book titles, and product names are nonstandard compound words. Take Paperchase, for example. It’s a UK stationery company. But The Paper Chase is also a movie. If you want to find results for the company Paperchase and not the movie, you can no longer just put quotes around it and search. If you do, you will also end up with references to the movie, in addition to other hits that have the words “paper” and “chase” next to each other (of which there are many, seeing as it’s a common idiom). You can try to work around this by eliminating words from your search using the minus sign, but then you risk losing relevant results. With this seemingly subtle change in its advanced search capabilities, Google is heavily influencing a person’s ability to find the limited list of relevant results they seek. This change may be useful for people who are sloppy typists and accidentally leave out a space in their query, but it destroys the relevancy ranking for queries that are meant to be just one compound word. [Note: it doesn’t matter if you type the quotes yourself, or if you type the word into the “this exact wording or phrase” box on the advanced search page. Either way, it ignores the quotes when executing the query. Interestingly, if you type the quotes around the word on the basic search screen and then switch to the Advanced Search page, it actually strips the quotes out! And if quotes are around the word on the basic search screen, it should show up in the “this exact wording or phrase” box when you switch to Advanced Search, but it doesn’t.]
I’m sure that Google’s motivation for this change is to help the user (while at the same time increasing ad revenue, since more search results equal more potential ad-clicks). But I find this change really annoying, and just another example of how Google enables people who are sloppy typists and/or don’t know how to spell or search to blissfully continue down that road. Where’s the motivation to be a better typist or to learn to spell correctly if Google automatically corrects all your errors? When I do a search with quotes, it’s because I want my results to be narrowed down in relevancy. By automatically assuming that I might have inadvertently left out a space between two words that also make a compound word, Google disallows me from narrowing down my results. So what if I had accidentally left out a space? I would’ve figured it out when I saw my search results, and then could’ve re-run my search. I would’ve lost a few seconds of time, but at least I would’ve had the opportunity to correct my mistake. By autocorrecting my compound word “mistake”, though, Google effectively shuts out the possibility of producing a truly relevant list of results, instead forcing me to weed them out on my own from the irrelevant ones. Why do you treat me like such a lazy idiot, Google? Don’t you think that if I was careful enough to put quotes around my search, I would’ve typed a space in my query if I wanted it there? Using Google’s search engine increasingly insults my intelligence. In my opinion, this dilution of advanced search capabilities in the interest of “convenience” only serves to decrease Google’s usefulness. It is also just another example of how obsessed the world is with “saving time” and making everything instantaneous and therefore more “efficient”, at the regrettable expense of quality craftsmanship, usefulness, long-term value, and countless other characteristics that have largely fallen by the wayside in our modern society. And as Google increases the ways in which it automatically anticipates and corrects our searches, it becomes that much easier for it to push us towards certain sites, thus shaping what information we consume without us even realizing it. If that’s not scary to you, then maybe you need to re-read 1984.
P.S. I also despise Google’s auto-suggestion feature for some of the same reasons (and others), but I’ll leave that rant for another time.