I gave a workshop Tuesday on "emerging search technologies," by which I meant roughly searching for just about anything on or via the Internet using means that went past just the text-based websearching of Google or Yahoo. Thus I mentioned sites like Grokker and Hakia and a new (to me) tool, Chunkit. We spent a lot of time on so-called "social search," ranging from Wikia and Mahalo to Worio and Sidestripe (which work with Facebook Connect) to Aardvark, a tool so new and hip I’m not even allowed to use it yet.
It’s enjoyable to see what some obviously very clever people are developing every day, and I had a great time researching the workshop, but I was also struck by how much wasted effort there is in any innovation. I’m not sure I have enough of a social network to take advantage of things like Sidestripe or Aardvark, though they look pretty nifty. But who really needs Stumpedia? "Human powered search"? What were they thinking? Is this going to be any improvement over the old but still useful concept of a web directory? I don’t see how. Or Truevert, the "green" search engine? Is anyone really likely to find more informtion about composting toilet systems on this than on Google or Yahoo? Or Delver, with the dubious claim that "your friends know best." With all due respect to my friends who are reading this, I’m not sure you really know best about any topic I’m likely to be searching the Internet for, and I’m almost positive that I don’t know best about whatever you’re searching (unless you happen to be searching for stuff about me, in which case I probably do–but what are the chances?).
Even sites I kind of like pitch themselves as solving a problem I don’t have. Consider Rollyo, which allows you to create customized search engines a lot more easily than Google Coop. Rollyo asks, "Are you tired of wading though thousands of irrelevant search results to get to the information you want?" To which I’d have to answer, nope. Google does a pretty good job of giving me relevant sites on the top page. Or, "ever wish you could narrow your search to sites you already know and trust?" Almost never, to be honest. Those sites I just go to directly, usually using Google Bookmarks.
Obviously I’m not the target audience for search engines and sites that claim to solve the problem of too many irrelevant resources, but I do wonder how many people really are these days. If people can’t get relevant search results on Google or Yahoo, how likely is it they’re going to do much better asking their friends for help with Aardvark or Sidestripe? Chances are that my social network, such that it is, contains a lot of Internet savvy people, and if I actually had a question, someone might be able to point me to something I hadn’t discovered. But it’s at least possible that the people who are the least Internet savvy are going to have an entire network of unsavvy friends, none of whom can help them.
I’m not even sure how much the people using Rollyo can be trusted. I searched one specialized search engine for guitar tablature, and noticed that it doesn’t have Chordie, which is far better at finding guitar tabs than the Rollyo engine and any of the websites it searches.
I was thinking about the waste because I remember reading a few months ago about some controversy regarding libraries building innovative search tools to rival Google, and wondered how much of our effort we might waste doing things like that. It’s not because I think that out of this waste good things won’t emerge, because I believe they will. It’s just that there are so many people out there wasting a lot of time and money and effort to come up with the next new thing that it seems hard enough for most of us just to keep up with what’s already going on. There absolutely has to be wasted effort to produce useful innovations. I guess I’m just glad there are a lot of clever working on things like this so I don’t have to.