… in which the Inelegant Investor tries his hand with Google’s new custom search engine feature.
Earlier this week, Google(GOOG) announced the availability of a new feature which allows users to build custom search engines. While this isn’t likely to have any immediate material impact on the business, it fits perfectly into Google’s paradigm of providing free tools to others on a rev-share basis. Google doesn’t care what you do with these tools, but they know that users will develop content and then go out and market it and acquire traffic, leaving Google to sit back and develop more tools. One particularly nice part of this model is that it generates low-cost capital. Since most users never get anywhere near the $100 minimum AdSense payout, Google gets to sit on the cash, which by my reading of their most recent report is about $307 million and growing at around $12 million per month. Small change for a company with quarterly profits above $700 million, but a nice little no-interest credit line nonetheless.
But I digress.
The fundamental problem with search is that users expect an oracle. Unfortunately, search engines are deterministic machines, and their input is insufficient to allow them so see inside of the mind of their users. Some attempts at personalization have been made, but even the same person will expect different results at different times. So, while when I search for “java”, I’m more likely to be looking for information on programming, sometimes, I might really be interested in coffee.
One solution to this is breaking search from a monolithic experience into multiple targeted engines, and forcing you to select the one most likely to have your results. To some extent Google and other engines have done this; readers will be familiar with separate tabs for image search or news search. The key here, described succintly by the motto of the Delphic Oracle is: “Searcher, know thyself!”
What this new product does is allow experts in every niche to create focused catalogs designed to return optimal results in those niches. As an example, I have created a quick and dirty catalog to search for stock information which can be accessed through the search box on this page or at www.stockaroo.com. While by no means comprehensive, even with a number of refinements, I find it already gives me a reasonable response to my queries. Please provide feedback on queries that return bad results or sites that ought to be added either in the comments, or by emailing email@example.com.
While Google has made it quite simple to set up Custom Search Engines, one thing that could be improved is the collaboration feature. Though there is the ability to allow others to help customize your engine, the interface allows no way that I could find to see what changes they’ve made and modify them. So you’d better entirely trust your collaborators, because they have the power to completely subvert your results. Of course you can remove them and all their modifications, but without being able to see what they’ve done, that’s a rather blunt management tool.