The problem with free search

"You are in a maze of twisty passages ..." -- From the legendary text-based game, Dungeons and Dragons.

There was a time when the Web was like being in a Dungeons and Dragons game -- it was really, really hard to find your way around. But the search engines changed all that.

Today, Internet search is the driving force behind e-commerce and the Holy Grail of every aspiring commercial operation. If your Web site appears "above the fold" in the results of any of the big search engines, then it is supposed that fame and fortune will be yours.

It is interesting to realize just how much of a balancing act the search engines have had to do. They have to deliver the goods -- that is, relevant search results -- and then monetize their services through contextually relevant advertising. Too much advertising or too little relevance and the punters will find the service less useful and go elsewhere. In theory, the search engines have this nirvana.

Even so, there's a problem with commercial interests being the driving force behind search: When viewed from the perspective of the search engines, the Internet is starting to look less like a way to access the global repository of all human knowledge and more like the biggest department store in history.

Why? Because every vendor with any competitiveness knows they have no choice, that they have to play the game to be in the game and so they try to maximize the number of links that point to them and make their content broader and more relevant as far as the search engines are concerned. This in turn means their commercially oriented content gets valued more highly than other, possibly more relevant and objective, sites.

Just the other day I was trying to find something (I forget exactly what) and every search resulted in at least two pages of commercial results. I'm not talking about the ads framing the results, I'm talking about the actual results -- they were all from companies trying to sell me something.

Sure, had I used the right search terms, for example, by restricting my search to known expert sources, I would most likely have struck gold with my first attempt at searching, but the problem is that, until you've done some searching, you usually don't know what constitutes a relevant expert source. Commercialism has added an incredible amount of "noise" to searching.

Just imagine if television advertising had been pushed commercially as fast as Internet advertising has been. You would have had adverts with that incredibly irritating pitchman, Billy Mays, hawking cleaning products every 10 seconds and that idiot peddling "Cham wow" in a starring role in "The Sopranos" ("Check it out, Tony, simply lay the Cham wow down on the blood and then pick it up -- you'd never know that Frankie Two Toes was whacked right here in the Bada Bing! Wow!").

As usual when it comes to technology, we get what we pay for. You want inexpensive software? Then it will usually work just well enough to be useful but it won't be the best engineering. So when we want to pay nothing for search, we get what pays the bills: Commercially biased results.

And here's the bigger consequence: Web content, taken as a whole, has been changed forever by this commercialism. Now it may well be that there never was any other plausible way for the Web to develop, but the fact remains that objective sources are orders of magnitude harder to find than they ideally should be.

We have taken one set of twisty passages and let the search engines give us a different set of twisty passages to navigate. So, here's the question: Is free search good enough or at some point -- for instance, when you eventually get nothing but commercial results -- will we be ready to pay for search with real relevance?

This story, "The problem with free search" was originally published by Network World.

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