Cyberclinic: Has Google stopped searching for answers?

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The Independent Tech

It's an ambition of mine to become a verb. Ideally, "to Rhodri" would mean to pen vast tracts of moving prose, display superhuman musical virtuosity, and be effortlessly charming. Sadly, it's not going to happen. It won't even come to mean "to moan about stuff", which is a better reflection of my personality. But Google managed it, the lucky so-and-sos, by creating the most efficient search tool the internet had seen. It made its competitors look so laughably bloated and inept that we deserted them like they were train carriages with a large, ticking parcel left in the aisle. Even today, with Microsoft's Bing doing all it can to challenge – including, say, dealing with Google copying its results – we're continuing to show loyalty to the search giant; more than two-thirds of the world's searches are handled by it.

But while Google spreads its wings and moves into areas beyond the web, such as driverless cars and alternative energy sources, there's a growing murmur that it may have lost its mojo in the one area it had unquestionably conquered: search. For a search engine to succeed, all it has to do is give us the results we're looking for; it does so by taking our often vague search terms and using an algorithm to assess which websites in its index we might be interested in. But Google's search engine is so dominant – effectively the gatekeeper to the internet – that the battle to beat its algorithm and push websites to the top spot for various search terms is incredibly intense. Search engine optimisation is a multimillion-dollar industry and, in a sense, it's the scourge of the web, because it reduces the chances any automated system has of calculating how interesting a website really is. If Google loses this battle, useless links rise up their listings, which is the charge the company currently faces. Content farms churn out millions of pages of drivel purely to lure in visitors via search engines, and then collect the associated ad revenue. And they're getting better at persuading Google that they're fascinating websites than Google are at realising that they're not. As one commentator put it, it's become a "tropical paradise for spammers and marketers".

This may be overstating things – Google does a good job under trying circumstances, and it gets hammered when it attempts to make changes; this week, it removed torrent sites from its instant-search feature – possibly at the behest of the music industry – only for screams of "censorship" to echo around the web. But maybe there's a different approach involving curation. In the early days of the web, sites such as Yahoo! would assemble links to websites that it deemed to be worth visiting, place them in folders such as "Entertainment" or "Pets", and we'd dutifully go and have a look. That seems laughable these days – though, in a sense, every link we share on Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon or Delicious is a kind of curation system. So how about combining a clever algorithm with a crowdsourced curation system to help to suppress the tidal wave of spam links? Blekko.com, a new search engine, works on this principle; we bestow our editorial approval on websites via a process they call "slashtagging", and spam links can be eliminated in a single click. Additional tricks, such as being able to order results by date, make Blekko one of the most interesting alternatives to Google. Of course, if it ever becomes as popular as Google, a whole industry will swing into operation to try to ruin it. But I think we've got a while before that happens.



The world waited for 15 long, traumatic years for a new album by Guns N' Roses. When it finally arrived, back in 2008, it's safe to say that the sheer weight of expectation led many people critically to appraise it as "a bit rubbish". The makers of the game Duke Nukem Forever are probably anticipating a similar critical mauling, when the game is released this spring, some 14 years after its first announcement. It's often cited as the premier example of "vaporware", a delicious term that neatly wraps up the failure of a piece of software to materialise promptly with our sneering doubt that it will actually appear. You do wonder whether it might have been easier for its makers, Gearbox, just to abandon the whole project – especially when it started being referred to online as "Duke Nukem If Ever". But no, the controversial character returns on 3 May. Honest.

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