Google has been slowly rolling out a new feature called SearchWiki to its industry-leading search engine, which allowsusers to manipulate their search results by voting them “up” or “down” based on relevance, or by annotating some of the results with a few lines of text.
If you’re not seething with outrage after that description, then no, you’re not missing anything. Admittedly, SearchWiki isn’t Stalin-evil, or Saddam-evil, or even Andrew Jackson-evil. It’s more like plastic silverware-evil. It’s a small, seemingly harmless comfort that might just do significant damage to a cause we all should be fighting for. That cause: building a culture of Internet savvy.
In other words, no, Google is not secretly an evil empire, as many of us have quietly suspected for years (the jury is still out on Facebook, however.) In fact, its SearchWiki promises to make search much more relevant for everyone, once it is taken out of limited beta and made available to every user. It could eliminate your need to make bookmarks on your browser, or to make personal notes on a site with a separate software like Google Notebook. Here’s how it works.
When you’re signed into your Google account, and you vote or annotate a search result, Google will remember that modification for the next time you search. If you’re always forgetting the name of that super-cool video site, then vote it to the top of your “web video” search results so that you can more quickly impress people with your sweet Web skillz. (That site is called Hulu, by the way.) If you’re constantly searching for similar queries, SearchWiki lets you add little notes to each search result so that next time it pops up, you remember what it’s good for. (You can also make these comments publicly available, in the same way that Google users can annotate stores and restaurants on Google maps.) If you’re sick of one particular link always sullying your results, you can delete it, so that it gets shunted to the bottom of your results page. You can also add a result you want to appear when you search a certain query, but don’t naturally.
However, up-voting and down-voting modifications happen only for your Google account. In other words, you can’t use this feature to alter Google’s search results for other users (though they can see your notes on a link, if you allow them to). Most of SearchWiki’s features are about personal preference, and everything that you modify you can also un-modify. (To see what the interface looks like, watch the video below.) This is good, because it prevents you from messing up anyone else’s research, and from altering your Google results until you unknowingly live in a parallel search universe where every query (from “who is Paris Hilton’s boyfriend?” to “who beat McCain in 08?”) returns your own personal website.
But this is also bad. Very bad. Why? Because if this feature does not affect anyone else’s search results, then it has no business being called SearchWiki. Simply adding personal notes to a body of data – comments on YouTube, product reviews on– does not make that data a wiki. Suggesting otherwise is dangerous.
Wiki technology has specific uses and specific flaws. It is excellent at making available large swaths of information, but not necessarily information that you would want to rely on. Wikis can be spammed, gamed, biased, simplistic and incomplete. They are exactly what you do not want in a search engine.
To be clear, Google’s new feature is something that you do want in a search engine. It eliminates the need for local bookmarks and notes, making them available wherever you’re signed into Google, and it saves you the time of doing the same manual filtering every time you search a query you’ve searched before.
But I argue that by calling it a “wiki” feature, Google is tempting users into a kind of dangerous ignorance of what wiki technology is and is not good for. “SearchWiki” smacks of paradoxical, dubious terms like “clean coal.” Is “clean coal” less damaging to the environment than burning coal the traditional way? Yes. Is it still horrifically corrosive? Yes, and don’t you forget it. A title is only a title, but it can be enough to make people complacent where they should be cautious.
By calling such a terrific feature – and SearchWiki is indeed an improvement – a “wiki” feature, Google is pushing us a small step backwards in the upward march towards Internet-savvy civilization. Part of the continuing threat of the Internet is that it requires users to approach it with the correct kind of selective skepticism for it to be useful: “I can trust this site for news, but not necessarily that one.” By lumping the term “wiki” – an unreliable, fallible construct – with a sacrosanct, scientific schema like “search” – a reliable, algorithm-based tool – Google threatens to engender too much trust in “wiki,” where there should instead be a measured, journalistic mistrust. And it’s all for naught, because the feature isn’t even really a community-based feature, anyway.
There is, of course, tremendous potential to the concept of filtering data using collective human intelligence, but this feature isn’t nearly revolutionary enough to warrant such a disruptive title. There’s no telling if Google might change the name upon final release, but if it doesn’t, let’s hope that Google’s lack of discretion won’t seep into other industries. We don’t want our children writing science papers using “statistical opinions” or our medicines based on “chemical inclinations.”