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Humans, Not Computers, Do Search Better

The collective wisdom of humans – not computers and algorithms – may provide an alternative to Google.
July 10, 2006

I spend way too much time on the Web, poking around, looking for new and interesting tidbits of information that haven’t quite bubbled up to the surface yet. For the most part, I use RSS feeds, blogs, and other information-gathering applications such as Stumbled Upon that have become popular. What I don’t use is search. The reason: search isn’t a very effective way to find information about which you know nothing.

However, search companies – both startups and traditional powers – are looking for ways to incorporate social search (e.g., tagging information) into automated search, creating tiers of information which users can parse through.

The Associated Press has an article about PreFound.com, one of handful of new social search companies building applications that allow both users and computers to create search results that are more targeted than computer-generated results.

Here’s how it works, according to the article:

Traditional search results are largely based on objective criteria such as counting the number of links other sites have placed to a given Web page. Social search gives people subjective answers – the best sushi restaurant in Chicago or the best Web site for information about French impressionism – not necessarily the site visited the most.

Normally, I’m rather nonplussed by stories about search because of the massive investment in hardware and software infrastructures needed to truly make search work. What’s interesting with this social search – outside of the fact that Google and Yahoo are trying to incorporate this into their results now – is that it relies on the collective wisdom of the Web users, an idea that can be extremely powerful. Wikipedia, for all of its flaws, is a testament to that.

It’s unlikely, I think, that small startups such as PreFound will knock Google out of the box; however, the movement toward social search is an important one to follow because it’s likely that these Web 2.0-type applications will increasingly become part of our daily digital life.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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