Emerging Technology from the arXiv

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Filling a Search Engine Blind Spot

If you discover a source of information that search engines don’t already cover, filling the gap is not always straightforward.

  • July 15, 2013

Google may give the impression of being an all-seeing, all-powerful search engine that can deliver the information we desire at any time of the day or night, but there are still one or two sources that even this behemoth does not cover.

Today, Christian von der Weth and Manfred Hauswirth at the National University of Ireland in Galway identify one blind spot in Google’s coverage and describe their vision for how to fill it.

This information blackspot consists of location-specific information that is only useful for people for short periods of time. An example would be a question such as whether an advertised bargain is still available at a particular shop. Another is to ask whether parking spaces are available at a public event such as an air show, music concert or such like

There is no way that a search engine like Google can index that kind of information that is specific to a particular location for just a short period of time. However, people who are physically at these places can easily answer these questions.

The task that von der Weth and Hauswirth have set themselves is to create a system that links virtual web users, who can be anywhere on the planet, with a real person at the location they are interested in.

That ought to be a relatively straightforward task but it is one that has its share of potential pitfalls.  The basic idea is to create a mobile app that is aware of its physical location, perhaps by linking it to the GPS system of a smart phone. This location is then indexed in real time so that any queries relating to that location can be routed appropriately.

Then anyone visiting the webpage associated with the mobile app or anyone searching for information about that location is automatically put in contact with a person who is actually there.

Von der Weth and Hauswirth have tested this idea with a mobile app for the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 in which 70 yachts raced around the world starting in Alicante, Spain, and ending in Galway, Ireland.

The mobile app includes a button that allows anybody to enter into a group chat to answer questions relating to their location.

Von der Weth and Hauswirth show a couple of examples of group chat in which people ask whether the final line-crossing event in Galway is worth visiting and whether there is enough parking.

But an interesting question is how popular this feature was. Significantly, just how many people used this feature and how useful they found it, Von der Weth and Hauswirth don’t say.

And therein lies the biggest questions about this idea– will anybody use it and if they do, will they find the information they want?

It’s not hard to imagine people searching the Internet to find out about bargains and parking spaces. However, it’s much harder to imagine people in shops and car parks reaching for their smart phones to make themselves available to answer questions– what’s in it for them?

Perhaps that’s where Von der Weth and Hauswirth need to think more carefully. There’s a curious asymmetry between the people asking the questions and those answering them. Obviously, there needs to be an incentive for all parties involved.

But creating incentives where they don’t naturally exist will be no easy task.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1307.1543: Finding Information Through Integrated Ad-Hoc Socializing In The Virtual And Physical World

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