Google’s popular searches highlight its failure

16 Dec, 2014

Google just released its list of the most popular searches of 2014.

  1. Robin Williams
  2. World Cup
  3. Ebola
  4. Malaysia Airlines
  5. Flappy Bird
  6. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
  7. ISIS
  8. Ferguson
  9. Frozen
  10. Ukraine

Notice anything interesting about the list? Apart from Flappy Bird (and possibly Frozen), all of the items are news related. In effect people are using Google as a news search. However, Google is not built for news. A Google search for Robin Williams (actually an implied search for “news about Robin Williams’ death”) doesn’t return news about Williams, but a list of links, with a smattering of data scraped from Wikipedia, and a couple of semi-random news stories.

In my last blog post (Google’s Black Hole) I describe how Google’s “knowledge graph” exposes a deep flaw in the way Google presents its results. This is because Google doesn’t actually know the question, and, to hide its confusion, attempts to give a little bit of everything. People  searching for “Robin Williams” are not searching for a list of links about Williams, but for news about the circumstances of his death. They are looking for the story of Williams.

However, the situation is actually worse for Google. As 36.4% of people who go to Google click the top link, almost all of those people are going to Wikipedia. So are they really going to Google at all? What is the point of Google when at least 40% of the people using it could just go to Wikipedia directly? [pullquote]What is the point of Google when at least 40% of the people using it could just go to Wikipedia directly?[/pullquote]

Of course, when they get to Wikipedia most people don’t read much past the summary. Very few people are going to read the entire 3000-word biography. People searching for information about William’s death will have to scroll to the bottom of the page, and see what information relevant to William’s death Wikipedia editors have deemed as notable enough for inclusion. That’s not much, and I don’t think what they really had in mind in the first place.

In my post (Wikipedia’s 13 Deadly Sins) I point out that Wikipedia’s 10-year-old software is not built for news. There is no way to sort or filter the information on the page, and of course the reference-based link system does not work the way the web should (Google’s Broken Links). It’s an encyclopedia that is not built for news.

Ok, so I hear you say, “But, but… Google News!” But Google News doesn’t curate news well. It has no archive and readers are still left to sort through thousands of stories to get the news. There’s no flow. No story of how events unfold.

To summarize: Google doesn’t show news for its most popular searches, it drops readers off at Wikipedia, but Wikipedia doesn’t present news well. So why are these inferior products at the top of news-based searches? I will go into this more in a later post, but there is a co-dependency between Google and Wikipedia that works for both organizations, but shuts out other competitors while giving inferior content to the reader. These emperors have no clothes.

For reference here’s Newslines page about Williams. We are currently building our filtering system and it will be ready around Christmas.


Mark Devlin is the founder and CEO of Newslines, a new crowdsourced news search engine. Find out more about him here, and more about Newslines here. Click here to follow Mark on Twitter.

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