Google Is Not Very Smart (or Incredibly Smart)

To the layperson, Google might seem like the smartest company in the world.

Once you understand technology, it’s obvious that they’re not very smart. Or incredible geniuses.

If you’ve spent more than a few years building websites, you know very well the types of ignorant robot-stupid mistakes that Google can make. An example from this very blog is that I spent quite a few years working on multi-user dungeons (MUDs for short). There are a lot of posts on the subject, and Google’s ad system thinks that one of the main topics of this blog is digging holes in wet soil, and it’s not uncommon to see an ad for such machines on this site.

Google is PHENOMENALLY good at miscategorizing things. If there are two meanings to a phrase or topic, and 80% of the discussions in the world focus on the more popular meaning and 20% are about the less-popular meaning, the less-popular topic will be buried in the noise, because the systems will assume you mean “computer keyboards” when you meant “music keyboards”.

When you combine this with what I call “computational laziness”, this means that if your site happens to be categorized in a certain manner, you’re basically stuck there. Google doesn’t put much effort into revising its categorization models or re-analyzing sites based on new information.

What does that mean for web developers? Well, for a newer site, if Google puts you in a place you don’t want to be, you’re probably better off starting over from a different angle.

For people searching the web, it’s a little more complicated. Google is NOT designed to be the best search engine on the planet. Now that the search engine wars are over, the design has changed to focus on revenue maximization. What does that mean?

It means that Google as a search engine is designed to show you just-barely-adequate results that kind-of-but-not-really satisfy the question you were asking. It’s designed to be mostly-accurate but slightly frustrating, so that you are tempted to click on ads that seem likely to answer your question.

In a perfect world, a search engine would give you exactly the information you were looking for, as quickly and as accurately as possible. In THIS world, search engines are designed to give you the plausibly-relevant information that will benefit the search engine the most.

In a world where the profit motive rules over everything, product quality must necessarily suffer for the purpose of maximizing margins.

As something used by most of the people in the world pretty much daily, when does it make sense for search to become a public utility? It’s an interesting question worth pondering, but the mathematics and economics are far too complicated for a sound-bite answer.

The number of websites in existence has been relatively flat since 2017, not growing any faster than the world’s population, but processing power has effectively tripled. If Moore’s Law was still in effect, it should have grown 16x, but that ship has sailed. What this means is that, even though sites today have many more pages and much more data on average than six year ago, the ability to organize that information has grown faster than the actual quantity of information.

Google is not special. They’re just another business. And, with their original core patents being expired or expiring soon, there’s a lot of room to build something of higher quality with lower cost. Given the level of mind-share that they have (as any good look at Bing’s market share will confirm), is it worth it to build a competitor?

It depends.