Search Engines: Garbage In, Garbage Out

I am an unabashed Google cheerleader. As far as I’m concerned, Google is one of the crowning achievements of human civilization — if you know what you’re doing, almost any question can be answered by Google. Of course, if you don’t know what you’re doing, then using Google is no better than taking lessons from that urban legend spam about how some terminally ill kid wants to set the record for most greeting cards.

A lot of people have taken to bitching about Google, but most of the complaints I see are from people who simply haven’t taken the time to figure out how to use the search engine, or (more frequently) make rookie mistakes that would hurt them regardless of what search engine or offline system they were using for research.

Take Scott Middleton — please. Middleton is offered up by the Register’s resident anti-Google nutjob, Andrew Orlowski, as a prime example of just how unreliable Google and other search engines are. But Middleton’s problem is actually his own ignorance about what he is searching for.

Middleton wanted to see what sort of information about World War II he could track down, so he typed in “Guadal Canal” in Google and, not surprisingly, received very poor search results in return. Middleton concludes that it is shameful that there should be such poor search results for such a key World War II battle.

Except, there was no battle of “Guadal Canal.” There was, however, a battle of “Guadalcanal.” If you search Google on the correct name of the battle, you will find very helpful links in the first 10 results, including a chronology of the battle, complete with maps and other information.

Is it Google’s fault that Middleton thinks that Guadal Canal is some sort of canal system, instead of knowing that Guadalcanal is the name of small island in the Pacific?

No, but even so, Google tries to compensate for its users’ ignorance. If you search on “Guadal Canal,” Google helpfully asks “Did you mean Guadalcanal?” So even if, like Middleton, you don’t know the first thing about World War II battles, Google will step in and try to set you straight.

At some point you have to ask the user to resort to some sort of common sense or basic attention to detail. If people like Middleton want information about Sony, but search on Sanyo, there’s not much that even the best system can do to help.

Garbage in, garbage out.


Our kids deserve better than a Google™ future. Andrew Orlowski, The Register, September 20, 2004.

3 thoughts on “Search Engines: Garbage In, Garbage Out”

  1. your defense of google is weak… it used to be far better than now. I can ask for something and get entirely unrelated result. I can try and filter results to stop giving me such undesired selections and it still gives them even when i specifically state not to.

  2. however… you did write this 14 years ago… lol… at which time I would have said google was good. I would not agree now tho.

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