So When Does Google Run Out of Ideas?

By  |  Friday, November 21, 2008 at 8:03 am

googlelogo“Have you ever wanted to mark up Google search results?,” begins a new post at the Official Google Blog. “Maybe you’re an avid hiker and the trail map site you always go to is in the 4th or 5th position and you want to move it to the top. Or perhaps it’s not there at all and you’d like to add it.” The post is introducing SearchWiki, a new feature that lets you rejigger Google’s results by shuffling sites around and adding ones that aren’t there.

What it doesn’t ever do is explain the benefit of doing this tweaking. If you’re an avid hiker with a beloved trail map site, what are you doing searching for that site in the first place? Wouldn’t it make far more sense to simply bookmark it rather than game Google’s results? And why doesn’t SearchWiki do the one thing that would make the this search-massaging ability make sense–which is to let other people see your customized results? (If I were a hiker, I might be very interested in receiving results that have been edited by other savvy hikers.)

SearchWiki does include a useful-sounding feature for adding annotations to search results; those notes are viewable by other folks. But I worry that its benefits are outweighed by the clutter it will add to Google results. Google, a company that famously limits the number of words on its home page to twenty-eight seems to be veering away from its fanatical dedication to minimalism and usefulness.

Then there’s last month’s Mail Goggles, a Gmail feature that makes you do math problems when you send email late on night at weekends to verify that you’re not schnockered and about to humiliate yourself with a drunken missive you’ll come to regret. It was unveiled with a blog post from its inventor telling us about his motivations for creating it:

Sometimes I send messages I shouldn’t send. Like the time I told that girl I had a crush on her over text message. Or the time I sent that late night email to my ex-girlfriend that we should get back together.

TMI, my friend…

Mail Goggles is available only in Gmail’s Labs proving-grounds section, and it’s disabled by default; if you find it pointless and infantile, it’ll never get in your face. But it still rankles me, somehow–it’s like seeing a gifted friend piss away his talent.

Ultimately, SearchWiki and Mail Googles have nothing in common except this: They both make me worry that Google is short on good ideas, and is therefore devoting its unimaginable resources to not-so-good ones. The company rolls out new services and tweaks to existing ones at such a breakneck pace that I get paranoid that I’ll miss something if I leave my keyboard for a few hours. But I can’t imagine any Google fan–and I count myself as one–believing that the quantity of new stuff that emerges from the Googleplex is more important than its quality.

True, much of what Google comes up with is still good, great, or even transcendent. I like Gmail’s Voice and Video Chat, the new iPhone Mobile App, and Google Earth for iPhone. The LIFE photo archive on Google Image Search is downright dazzling. And Chrome brings some genuinely new ideas to Web browsing.

But am I alone in wondering wheher it’s time for Google to take a deep breath, slow down, and smother more of its employees’ 20 percent ideas before they ever reach the light of day?

(Full disclosure: SearchWiki doesn’t seem to have been enabled for my Google Account yet, so I haven’t tried it. I’m prepared to try it, like it, and issue a public apology here if need be.)


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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Sean Canton Says:

    Indeed! Wouldn’t it be great if the entire google index was a community driven affair, instead of handed off to some algorithm somewhere? Then relevance could be determined by people, directly. Not via the intermediary of brilliant engineers.

    Great blog btw, I love tuning in.

  2. taglag Says:

    I am recieving the google feature where i am located (mid west usa) but im not sure if all googlers are able to see the google searchwiki yet. If not there is a video and some screen shots of the searchwiki at do you guys think this will become a regular feature? do you think it will effect the google search results drastically from now on?

  3. Pbass Wil Says:

    I think time will tell if any more great ideas will emerge. But the way Google is structured, all manner of ideas will bubble up from the individual employees — that’s just where they come from. It’s a very democratic system.

    In a democracy, your lunatic fringe neighbour’s vote counts for just as much as your informed, thoughtful vote does. Any Googler’s idea can percolate up from the ranks and get presented to the general public. The general public will ultimately decide what’s useful to them and what’s not. The nutbar stuff will peak quickly and then disappear from view. The stuff that lots of folks like will endure and evolve and get refined.

    So don’t worry! Google offers a bazillion different services and devices; use what you like. More will appear; use what you like out of those emerging ones, too! The vast majority will be free. Some will change your life. Some will make you smile for a second or two. Some won’t interest you in the least. But the evolutionary process of Google’s products is cool.

  4. David Worthington Says:

    There is a potential for mischief… down rating competitor’s search results, or uprating unfavorable ones. I wonder how Google will address that.