Sunday, September 02, 2007

The search engine is dead, part I

I have decided that Tinfinger is not a search engine. It never was one, really, even though before now I had displayed the bold claim in the site's tagline: "Human search engine". I have come to the conclusion that I was sadly misguided.

There is no search engine but Google. There is no use fighting it. That is, unless you are skilled in the very techniques which have made Google what it is, and not the sort of thing that gets you a stinging rebuke from the lads at uncov, as PeekYou did this week.

They don't even bother to parse the query! Spock can even get off their lazy ass and do that. Sure, with names it's never as simple as a call to split(), or, uh, in PHP shall we say explode(), but at least try. This embarrassing lack of parsing suggests that their search is backed by MySQL, and the queries look like this:

SELECT * FROM Table WHERE FirstName="$firstName" AND LastName="$lastName";

I can't make the point any more clear that this is not a search engine. Search engines add value to a data store with intelligent parsing and ranking. If I wanted to look up people like this, I'd use the fucking phone book.

PeekYou, and its competitors Spock, Wink and the like... ARE the phone book. That's all they are. Specifically, they are phone books for social networks. Phone books are, by their nature, dumb. In a structural sense, I mean. Sure, they have utility, and every once in a while you'd like to have them around, but they're not very complex. The US White Pages includes separate form input boxes for each of its fields. So does the Australian White Pages.

Is that a search engine? No, I don't think so. Just because the site allows you to search a database doesn't make it a search engine, in my eyes.

Similarly, there was a stink a little while ago about Robert Scoble announcing that a gestalt entity comprised of Facebook, Techmeme and Mahalo was going to kill Google in four years' time. As punishment for the obvious linkbaiting, I choose to perform a gillmor (a verb meaning "to not link a vital underpinning part of one's argument, assuming that the reader knows what one is talking about, and additionally, fuck you readers, you little worms"). Anyway, so behind all the handwaving and whiteboard engineering, Scoble seemed to think that Mahalo's search results had the potential to become better than Google's.

Is Mahalo a search engine? No, I don't think so. The front page is rendered in a directory structure, and while there is a search box for the site, once you stray past the minority of authored pages, you're not in Kanmahalosas any more. Essentially, it's a bunch of link whitelists.

Obviously I don't think Wikipedia or Citizendium are search engines either, they are encyclopedias. The point I'm trying to make is that we need a new vocabulary for describing what we now call search engines, because as the uncov boys point out so cuttingly, many of the startups who currently bask in the status of being called a search engine are no more worthy of the name than the dead tree doorstop that used to get delivered to your home each year. Persai, the project being worked on by uncov denizens Ted, Kyle and Matt, is a real search engine, or at least it promises to be.

So, what do I think Tinfinger actually is? Well, apart from the fact that it's going to have a social networking element tacked on, and a Techmeme-style news aggregation feature (which made me wonder if Scoble had hax0red my bizplan), I think it's going to be an omnibus. By that, I mean it will be a collection of articles about a subject. It's not a very sexy word, but there it is.

You may be wondering: what does it matter what we call them? I think it is critical to the success of these ventures what they think of themselves as. I shall explain in my next blog post.


Anonymous aaron said...

Considering Mahalo relies on Google results, it's funny to think it could ever kill them.

8:39 am, September 02, 2007  

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