The Little Search Engine that Thought it was Smarter than Me

I’ve been using search engines and Boolean search terms since literally before there was a Google.  Back in the old days, you actually had to use some care and know some things about your topic before you started. Some of those search engines were sufficiently dim that — no joke — a search for “ants” might turn up restaurANTS and consultANTS. This actually happened to a lady I know.

Search engines got better and more numerous in the late 90s and early 2000s. Each had its own strength and weaknesses. On the Macintosh, there was actually a tool that let you use one search query on multiple search engines. This was a boon to me, since I was working as a researcher at the time. I could get Yahoo and Lycos and Ask Jeeves and all those other search engines to dance together and spit out what my bosses wanted to know in far less time than most people — partly because I knew what to ask.

Then this wonderful new search engine called Google came to my attention. It blew all the competition out of the water. Google was so good at what it did that “to Google” replaced “to do a web search” in our collective vocabularies. Over the years, Google got mostly better at finding what most people want to know. You could start asking it questions: what is the Capital of France; where can I get Thai food in Seattle; what is the airspeed of an unladen swallow? By the way, Google autocompletes that last one by the time you get 2 letters in to “airspeed.”

And here’s where it started getting dumber. It sounds like a brilliant idea to tailor your searches towards your history, right? If you are constantly looking up medical articles, you are likely to want more. Ok, but what if you were looking up anti-vaccine arguments for a school project? Google will happily help you make a tin-foil hat. Look up arguments against Hillary Clinton? Be prepared for biased articles every time you want to know about politics. There is a way to turn this feature off, and I recommend it. I have no idea how many arguments on the internet center on “Look, every time I search Google on this issue, X comes up.” Yeah, because Google decided that’s what you want to hear!

This ability of Google to find what it thinks you want instead of what you actually asked comes up in odd places. This brings me to this morning’s adventure. I am doing research on a specific zip code for a project:

  • How many parks are there in my target zip code, Google? Well, here’s a park in the next zip code over — because surely you actually want information on nearby parks, right?
  • What grocery stores are there in that zip code, Google? Well, there’s these 3, but wouldn’t you rather shop at the better-rated store across the street in the next zip code? And hey, will a convenience store do? And what about the places that you usually shop at a mile farther down the road? They’re open and traffic is clear!

In the old days, a search engine would have been literalist. Yes, the convenience stores would have turned up as grocery stores because most of them carry certain basic grocery products. But if that address didn’t have the right zip code at the end, it would not have turned up. I concede that most of the time “near” is a better answer. However, sometimes precision matters.