A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

Cuil vs. Google – Do People Really Even Want Another Search Engine?

Today, the Internet is abuzz about a new search engine called Cuil, which claims to return “better results” than Google.

I did a few quick searches and wasn’t that impressed.  As an example, when I search for our company name, Bivings, the first four results are random posts from The Bivings Report about John Edwards, our newspaper study, Daylife and Hotsoup.  Our main website, www.bivings.com, is the sixth result.  As another example, a search for my name returns a lot of nonsense, with the second result being a random account I set up on the DNC website two years ago and haven’t visited since.  A search for my name in Google returns a much more useful set of results.

Obviously, it isn’t fair to compare brand new Cuil to the well-established Google, and I’m sure Cuil will improve over time.

However, no matter how much Cuil improves it is going to be nearly impossible to get me to start using it as my primary search engine.  I’ve been using Google on a daily basis for five plus years and know its ins and outs.  When I do  a search for something I know what to expect.  If I search for a company name, I expect and want to see results for their main website and their Wikipedia entry.   When I search for a person’s name, I expect and want to find their personal website as the first result, followed quickly by links to their Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin accounts.

Basically, I’ve used Google so much that I don’t really know how to judge search results except by comparing them to Google.  Cuil results could be better than Google by some objective measure, but I’d still prefer Google because it returns the results I expect.  It is familiar.

It is sort of like going to Europe and being forced to drive on the left side of the road.  For all I know study after study may show driving on the left side of the road to be far superior to driving on the right.  But all the studies in the world aren’t going to make me feel comfortable doing it.

Update: Search guru Danny Sullivan has a good Cuil review.

Google Finally Walks…Get the Camera!

I've eaten a lot of crow in my day…but for the first time, I am going to announce it online.  I have been completely overly critical of Google Labs.  For many months, I have lamented at Google Labs' lame attempts to create useless products that are all flash and no function.  I badgered the online waves with rants about the need for them to focus on their current products instead of creating new ones.  Recently, I have been smacked in the face for my past comments, and that smack comes in the form of an addition to Google Maps.

Google Maps recently rolled out the beta version of Walking directions in their overall program.  It's great: if the distance you are traveling is less than 6.2 miles, you will receive the option to click on "walking" and change the map to reflect pedestrian-only roads, some sidewalks, and other quicker jaunts.  Living in a pedestrian-friendly city such as DC makes this feature a Godsend for figuring out just how far away that new restaurant will be from my apartment.

The blog announcement of the new feature is quick to point out that the walking directions are still in the beta testing phase, and many sidewalks, pedestrian streets, and other smaller roads are not listed yet.  As the walking directions become more fleshed out, the program can only get more and more useful.  I'm excited.

There are two additional things that I enjoy about the new feature.  One is that it contains a large yellow warning telling me that walking is dangerous.  Ah, to live in DC.

Second, if you have already selected the walking feature and then change the ‘to' and ‘from' directions to someplace very far away, you get some side-splitting results.  It'd apparently take me over 5 days to walk from DC to my parent's house in North Carolina.  I bet that I could do it.

Customer Service and Google? Nah, Couldn't Be…

One of the biggest tiffs that I’ve had with Google is that their customer support is well…lacking.  If you have any problems with Google Apps other than the most rudimentary “How do I?” question, you are going to run into some problems.  And good luck and Godspeed if you want to talk to a live person on the phone.  I’ve gotten so confounded in automated responses that I have lost all track of time, space, and self.

One of the biggest problems facing Google is their own popularity.  To meet the needs of its ever-growing client base, they would need thousands of technical support personnel.  That’s why I find the news about Website Optimizer service plans so fascinating.

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The Wired Mind: How the Internet Is Changing You

At one point in my life, I considered myself to be an avid reader. Over the years, I have noticed that my reading habits have changed — my literature agenda includes only required assignments and the occasional pleasure novel or "must read" (Malcolm Gladwell, Levitt and Dubner, unread classics). I attributed most of this to a decline in free time, increased commitments and responsibilities, and you know, being a college student. After reading Nicholas Carr's article for the Atlantic on how the internet is not only changing the way we gather information, but probably changing the actual way our minds work, I was forced to explore the possibility that Google is at least partially to blame for my decreased appetite for literature.

In summary of his article (the very streamlining trend of the internet he describes), he compares the pre-internet methods of information gathering to the way information is sought after today. What used to take hours, maybe even days of research in the stacks of libraries is now readily available in a few clicks and keystrokes in the comfort of your office, home, or pocket. Carr goes on in his examination of this phenomena through a variety of different lenses; the psychology of mental development, an ominous comparison to Stanley Kubrick's unearthly futurist masterpiece, and philosophical points to ponder from both past and present.

As Carr touches upon, this is not the first time an exponential shift in access to information has occurred. Johann Gutenburg and his infamous press changed the history books — and for the first time, enabled the mass production of such texts. During this period in history, a shift from oral learning to a more textual style of information seeking occurred. There just weren't developmental and cognitive psychologists there to document it.

I am certainly no futurist (nor do I want to be haunted by the nightmares of my own imagination), but I do know that I embrace evolution of the collective human ability; as a result I tend to embrace technology readily. It comes as no surprise to me that in an age of pop-up advertisements, instant messaging, twitter, and wikis, my mental processes have probably been altered to accommodate for a different style of data exposure. One can call these "advantages" or "disadvantages", but I see it more as just plain differences.

What these differences will amount to in years, even generations from now is not incontestable, nor is it an easy task to judge them with a viewpoint only history can reveal. While there may be a decreasing number of Tolstoy scholars in years to come, I simultaneously ponder how many lives biotechnology will have saved, or how advances in quantum computing will have shaped the course of mankind.

To answer Carr's fundamental question: No. Google is making us different. What do you think? Is the decreased attention span and the shift away from long works of prose really a threat to human intellect? When does the streamlining of data gathering efficiency threaten individuality?

P.S. – Less pretentious posts to come. I promise .

Newspapers and Google News: An Analysis

At the New Communications Forum conference last week, Chris O’Brien from the San Jose Mercury News mentioned during a presentation that 2/3rds of the traffic to the paper’s website comes from news aggregators (like Google News) and search engines.  This figure was higher than I expected, so I mentally filed away the tidbit to write about at some point.

Then today I came across a site called Newsknife, which breaks down which newspaper websites have the most articles appear in Google News.  I found this fascinating, so I quickly compared the twenty five newspapers that appeared most often in Google News with a list of the twenty five largest newspapers in terms of print circulation.  A couple of quick things jumped out at me:

  • The Mercury News, Washington Times and Akron Beacon Journal were the papers that performed the best in Google News as compared to their print circulation.  For the Mercury News and Washington Times, I’d guess they do well because both papers have a lot of content niche news topics (silicon valley and politics) that are very popular on time.  So it makes sense that Google News might have a lot of their stories.  I have no idea why the Akron Beacon Journal is in Google News so much.
  • The Wall Street Journal and Rocky Mountain News were the largest newspapers that did not appear on the list of top newspapers sites in Google News.  I suspect the Journal will start showing up soon given their recent deal with Google.  I don’t know what is going on with the Rocky Mountain News.

However, I was mostly left slightly baffled as to what to make of the data and why certain sites performed better than others.  How important is optimizing for Google News?  What is the impact of registration walls?  How important is the topics that are covered?  I think these questions are important to answers, as, based on the figures from the Mercury News, performance in search engines and news aggregators plays a huge role in the success or failure of a newspapers online program.  I’ll try to write more on this later after the data has a chance to sink in.

Anyway, below is the raw data.  Please share any thoughts you have in the comments.

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Newspaper Google News Print Circulation
The Associated Press 1 N/A
New York Times 2 3 ↑
Washington Post 3 5 ↑
Los Angeles Times, CA 4 4 –
USA Today 5 1 ↓
Boston Globe, MA 6 14 ↑
Houston Chronicle, TX 7 10 ↑
The Mercury News, CA 8 48 ↑
Chicago Tribune, IL 9 6 ↓
Washington Times, DC 10 N/A ↑
Baltimore Sun, MD 11 27 ↑
New York Daily News, NY 12 7 ↑
Atlanta Journal Constitution, GA 13 17 ↑
SFGate.com, CA 14 20 ↑
Kansas City Star, MO 15 31 ↑
Detroit Free Press, MI 16 12
Seattle Post Intelligencer, WA 17 21 ↑
Examiner.com, CA 18 N/A
Seattle Times, WA 19 22
San Diego Union Tribune, CA 20 25 ↑
Akron Beacon Journal, OH 21 74 ↑
Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, FL 22 37 ↑
Chicago Sun Times, IL 23 N/A
Boston Herald, MA 24 53 ↑
Philadelphia Inquirer, PA 25 8 ↓