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Searching for Substance: Search Engines Searching Me

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Nigel McFarlane posits that the days of the free ride when searching the Internet are ending. Search engines have become such ubiquitous tools that we use them without thought. In the future, though, they're more likely to use us.
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All technologies have their glory days, a blessed period during which no one questions and everyone assents. There was a time when you wouldn't be caught dead without a mobile phone; now you're more likely to complain about the cost involved than celebrate the freedom provided. The answering-my-mobile pose, once worth so many social points, has been replaced with the mobile huddle: sorry to be annoying. For some time, we've enjoyed glory days in the realm of search applications, whether desktop search or web search. But it's likely that recent trends in search tools will change all that. The simple search experience that you currently enjoy probably won't be simple forever.

It's All a Blur

Your current search tools are probably neatly divided into two categories:

  • To find documents lost somewhere on your hard disk, you might use Windows' Find Files or Folders feature, recently renamed Search, on the Start menu (or its Macintosh equivalent, Finder).
  • For finding web content, you likely use Google's home page, possibly embedded in a web browser.

This distinction between web and desktop is blurring. (See my article "Desktop Search Engine Feature Fest" for the details.) Search is no longer a mere feature; now it's a product—backed in almost all cases by a commercial company with dollars on their minds.

The increasing availability of broadband Internet, at least for the lucky and the desperate, complicates product offerings in the search space. You don't need Windows if you can run your desktop or your applications from a server or a browser, so the desktop is more negotiable than it has been for a long time. It's no surprise that Google's extraordinarily cashed-up tentacles are worming their way into the desktop, or that Windows (Microsoft being at least as cashed-up as Google) is reaching out onto the web. "Search" is starting to mean "search everywhere."

These new blended search tools are (for now) so difficult to install that only someone paid to do reviews would sanely attempt it. Once installed, however, some of these tools are very slick—so much so that starting Microsoft's MSN Toolbar or Google's Desktop Search for the first time is far from a rational experience. When installing a search tool to scan precious local files, there's a natural concern as to possible consequences, especially when the tool trumpets "integrated web and desktop search." Visions of your files heading elsewhere over the Internet? The relief is palpable when a window visually identical to the trusted Google brand appears, or when a new toolbar visually identical to the rest of the Windows brand neatly integrates itself in the desktop. In that moment of concern and subsequent relief, the tool provider has cemented the loyalty of an old customer for life, using no argument other than a brand reminder.

Under such circumstances, few people have the desire to backtrack and do a rigorous analysis, even though adoption based on nothing but a brand mark is famously unreliable as a measure of the quality of the goods.

Furthermore, this buying moment is not exactly provided by idealists. Google, Microsoft, and others intend to make a fair profit out of searching—a profit that ultimately derives from you. Thus, these new search tools are somewhat dodgy:

  • They track you more than they used to, mingling your local presence with your web history.
  • They deliver correlated information to systems that you don't know about and whose use you can only guess at (although that's not so new).
  • Their owners disclaim loudly and often that your privacy and anonymity is preserved at all costs. Once upon a time we bought personal computers because they were, well, personal. Now Microsoft and others want to patch your computer; record your search activities; and extract feedback about the tools you use, how you use them, and whether you can make them crash. In 2005, PC stands for participating computer, not private computer.
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