Thursday, 29 December 2011INDEX

A new type of search engine
Imagine everything you have ever been told about the internet in general and search engines in particular. Then reverse it.

This is a counter intuitive idea, yet when I explain it, people always say it must exist already. Perhaps it does, but I haven't come across it.

Information they say wants to be free and perhaps it does but advertisers want different values placed on different types of information: so free means different things at different places.

Let's put it this way, but it is only one of millions of potential examples, suppose you are looking for orange Egyptian cotton sheets in Ebay, you can find them but it is a very tedious process. These are standard high street products but you will have to wade through enormous quantities of stuff you are not interested in at all (pillow cases, polycotton sheets, which is probably not cotton at all and a lot of other stuff as well, almost none of it coming from Egypt).

Ebay probably tries its best to serve people who want to buy the goods offered via its service, but I believe internet traders attempt as hard as they can to compete on anything but price. In other words they hope that you may forget what you are looking for and instead click to buy their offerings on impulse. There seems to be no other conceivable reason for the fact that many of the entries are virtually identical, as if the search engine had been stuffed in order to crowd out low priced competition.

It's the same story with Google and other search engines. Googlewhacking is the name given to the process of entering search terms into google - often two words - with the aim of finding a search with just one result on Google. There is a word for this phenomenon because it is so rare. Many searches will give you millions of results. It is said that you can even get billions of results if you enter a term like if!

So far as most of these searches are concerned the results are of little value to anyone except the advertisers, reminding one of the old adage, he who pays the piper calls the tune!

So is the internet doomed to sink into a commercially driven miasma? Unfortunately, it probably is and, of course, this has driven the creation of selective search engines and web sites that catalogue related information. It's also possible to refine the way you search but fundamentally so long as the advertisers are paying it's never going to be a level playing field. If it was they wouldn't pay!

From a consumer's point of view this is all pretty depressing. Just as the internet really takes off as a commercial forum and high street stores start to feel the competition, consumers begin to find it almost impossible to discover what they really want.

So there is a huge unmet demand for an intelligent search engine and at the same time there is a vast amount of extremely cheap untapped intelligence: About three billion people (half the world's population), live on less than $2.5 a day. Source:

It's hard to avoid watching techy or third world development tv programmes without seeing stories of African towns, or sometimes whole African countries, aiming to be internet hot spots. But what exactly are they supposed to do with the internet (apart from attempting to obtain the bank account details of people who believe they are about to get $100million from some phoney source)?

Obviously, there are legitimate things people can do, like compete for jobs on services like peopleperhour, but they don't seem to do it a great deal. Perhaps it is too complex to get access to an internet enabled computer and perform quite sophisticated duties (like designing a Powerpoint presentation)?

But doing a search is quite a simple operation, if tedious. Pay internet enabled people living in these desperately poor areas $5 a day and I imagine it would seem like wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.

Even if they had to spend 20 minutes wading through an Ebay search sometimes, they'd probably be able to do a dozen searches a day. Charge the consumers $2 a search word ($8 for Orange Egyptian Cotton Sheets) and it could be quite profitable.

Save the core information obtained on an intranet and it might be possible for second line searchers to do a hundred searches a day, so you could make a good profit even if you were charging 25c a word.

Of course, there would be considerable consumer resistance to a search engine like this. People expect to get information for free and even premium services usually offer limited use for free.

Then there's the problem of micro transactions. It might be difficult to charge 25c via Paypal (or similar) so there would be a need to register and pay a subscription. Many consumers might give up at this point and say they can't be arsed to pay for something they know little about, particularly if they have to go through the process of registration.

On the other hand, I don't think it would be worth doing unless some (preferably a handful) of charities like Computer Aid and Oxfam, bought into the process. These charities have enormous databases and a vast ability to publicise a scheme like this. Their involvement would also make consumers feel better about parting with their cash.

Then there's the problem that search results would be delayed. They would not be instant. Could this be presented as an advantage?

For one thing this search engine is really intelligent and does not simply appear to be intelligent. It passes the Turing test so you can engage in a genuine conversation with it. If you don't like the response you can ask for the engine to take another look (possibly for a small additional fee).

Then there's the cooling off period angle. I can imagine the advert: ever bought a blow up purple rhino on the internet and wondered why when it was delivered a few days later? Using this search engine if you want to buy something you get to look at what you want to see yet the transaction takes a while. It isn't instant.

This idea would change the world. It could make internet shopping work better. It could improve the lives of the poverty stricken. It could force companies to be more transparent when they list their wares on the internet.

Lots of people have talked about providing internet enabled $100 computers in some of the poorest parts of the world. This search engine could afford to pay for and distribute such machines in meaningful numbers and at the same time create a lot of value for the people who construct it.

Posted by Jonathan Brind at 10:15
Thursday, 29 December 2011INDEX