24 August 2009

Browser failure

The last post got me thinking about how much real progress in search there has been since the first search engine appeared on the Web. Clearly quite enormous progress has been made in some areas, with Google leading the way in delivering search outputs that respond to the entered search terms. But no one seems to have developed anything that will answer questions.

For example, I tried the following question in Google, Yahoo, Bing, Chrome, Wolfram Alpha, SenseBot, Hakia, Powerset, Deepdyve and Ask.com

"In what sense is a programming language a language?"

I imagine that this is a subject that has been debated now and again and which is a reasonable question to ask. However, neither the standard search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc.) nor the so-called 'semantic search engines' (Hakia, SenseBot, etc.) came up with any results on their first output page - and if it isn't there, the question would be, Why not?

I see that Powerset has been bought by Microsoft, in the hope of improving Bing, presumably, but it looks as though search still has a long way to go before it is anything more than a method for matching input terms against document terms.

It might be thought that the search topic was in some sense "unfair", but surely it is exactly questions of this kind that present the real challenge for information retrieval research? The straightforward problem of matching terms has probably been cracked and certainly most users of search engines appear to be pretty well satisfied with what they get. However, because the output from search engines is so good today, it raises expectations of how good it can be, and those expectations are probably going to be dashed.

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