Thursday, 27 March 2014INDEX

A new type of search engine

Information, they say, wants to be free. And they, whoever THEY are, were certainly right in the early days of the internet. At the time, the internet was like a giant college library. All sorts of interesting stuff was there but not much of it was commercial. This was the era of the geeks.

But the internet grew up. It became a market place and in the world of business one thing is for certain: there's no such thing as a free lunch.

It also turns out that in the universe of the internet free can be extremely costly. Let's take the case of a metal plate with three holes in it. You can buy one from a famous discount retailer in most high streets in the UK for 99p. It's tacky and down market but it does the job.

On the internet the cheapest product of this type I found after an extensive and difficult search, cost in excess of £2 a unit. It's certainly a better looking product, if not antique at least appearing to be vintage. But it does exactly the same job.

Frighteningly, the £2 a unit bracket was offered at a knock down price. The same (or a very similar) retailer offered exactly the same product at three times the price. This gold plated bracket (in price terms if not in reality) would have been bought by many after the lengthy search required to track it down. Of course, the more expensive offering always seems to be easier to find.

This is a familiar story to anyone who buys everyday items regularly on the internet. If the price is fairly small, the cost in time terms required to track down the best deal is usually not worth the trouble.

Anyone who used a free search engine to buy a 99p bracket for £6 (a unit) is paying a horrendous price. Information may want to be free but in practice there's no such thing as a free lunch.

This may be because advertisers want different values placed on different types of information. Companies are prepared to pay to give their products a leg up: so free means different things at different places. In the commercial corners of the internet free would sometimes make a racketeer whince, the profits are so enormous.

The idea that if you paid for a search engine you might get a better deal is counter intuitive idea, yet when I explain it, people always say it must exist already. :)

The online retailer may try its best to serve people who want to buy the goods offered via its web site, but I believe internet traders try 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 on other offerings on impulse (or perhaps sheer desperation). 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.

The search pictured below, for an everyday product you could find on sale in many high streets produced more than half a million results in one of the online retailers' search engines. In practice the vast majority of these so called results had nothing at all to do with Egyptian cotton sheets, but such a proliferation certainly makes it difficult to find the cheapest
product. Most will either give up or opt for the first product that's anything like the item for which they are searching.

Whilst this may not be deliberate, the technique is very reminiscent of the air force missile defence of throwing out a lot of material aimed at confusing the targeting system.

It's the same story with the general search engines. Googlewhacking is the name given to the process of entering search terms - often two words - with the aim of finding just one result. 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: the person 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 track down what they really want at a sensible price.

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 $2.50 a day. Source:

It's hard to avoid watching technology or third world development tv programmes without seeing stories of Third World towns, or sometimes whole Third World 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 gullible 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 web sites like peopleperhour, but they don't seem to do this very often. 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 a retail web site's search results, they'd probably be able to do a dozen searches a day. Charge the consumers $2 a search word and it could be quite a business.

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 don't expect to pay for information 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 are not prepared to pay for something they know little about, particularly if they have to go through the process of registration.

So it would probably not 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 really does have brains and does not simply appear to be intelligent like a dumb machine. 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 individual searcher 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 the transaction takes a while. It isn't instant.

This idea would change the world. It could make internet shopping work better. It would improve the lives of the poverty stricken. It would raise millions of pounds for charities. It would 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. When it got going this search engine could also afford to pay for and distribute such machines in meaningful numbers and at the same time create a lot of value.

Posted by Jonathan Brind.
Thursday, 27 March 2014INDEX