We are what we search

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The Internet was barely born as a publicly accessible network of networks when a flash of inspiration came to innovators like McGill University student Peter Deutsch: somebody needed to organize this thing.

Thus sprouted, in basements and garages and college laboratories, a fury of Coca-Cola-fueled work aimed at figuring out ways to let Internet users burrow through the maw to come up with a singular gem of an informational result. It could be an article, a cooking recipe or a photo of Madonna from her experimental film days, but there it would appear, almost magically, as if plucked from the ether by a knowing hand.

Reciting the litany of search agents that were produced to plow through the online thicket produces a sense of profound nostalgia, and reminds us how fast this digital world has grown up around us. The detritus of largely forgotten search engines includes once-promising names like Alta Vista, Northern Lights, Excite and Lycos.

Preceding these commercially minded vehicles were the awakening agents of Internet search: 1989’s Unix-based search system Archie; the University of Minnesota-bred Gopher tool in 1991; and, later, from the University of Nevada-Reno, the Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Netwide Index to Computerized Archives, or, blessedly, “Veronica.” (The derivation of the “Archie” label remains one of the irresistibly quaint tales of Internet lore. Its creators, including McGill students Deutsch and Alan Emtage, originally wanted to use the generic name “Archives,” but were proscribed by Unix standards to a limited character count. Deutsch reportedly hated the contrived “Veronica” name that followed.)

With its $78 billion market capitalization, the reigning category giant, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc., seems today to be an unstoppable force in online search, but even it faces challenges from newcomers like Wisenut and Teoma, both of which purport to be able to sniff through an even more astonishing volume of Internet content to produce what it is that users seek.

Maybe so. But to displace Google from the hearts and souls of modern-day netizens will take some doing. The organic ascension of Google from humble search technology to widely adopted verb (“I made sure to Google him before we went out on our first date”) testifies to the special place this particular brand has earned. It also offers an instructive lesson in software development. Much of Google’s appeal stems from a genuine and unusual obsession with its customer base. Among the “Ten Things” that serve as the foundation of the Google development philosophy (published, in signature Google style, on the company’s own Web site) is this nugget: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” To make good on the mandate, Google employs a very simple feedback loop. It publishes experimental versions of new tools on its Web site and invites users to critique them.

This sort of willingness to let users do some of the guiding of what ends up being a tour-de-force Internet offering could be instructive for those creating a new class of video content searching tools. A fresh array of startups – today’s incarnations of Alta Vista and Lycos – are now building tools to help viewers identify and watch programs within the new sea of video plenty.

If the world has learned anything from Google’s spectacular run, it’s that attempting to cash in by organizing the digital world according to selfish interests won’t work. Woe be to any cable executive foolish enough to sully his or her vocabulary with the term “walled garden” that once seemed a perfectly reasonable model for corralling content.
Instead, the emerging schemes for navigating video in all its forms and housings – linear channels, on-demand menus, digital video recorder vessels and online repositories – need to take into account habits we’ve all internalized from our daily Google harvests. If it’s out there, we want to know about it and we want to find it. And we want to find it within two sips of coffee, if you please.

That’s the real legacy of our pals Archie and Veronica. They and their offspring have trained us to understand we can peek behind the digital curtain anytime we want. Video navigation technology that fails to comply with the “feed me now” ethic of the Google generation is destined for that special place that businesses go when they ignore history’s lessons. You’ll find it three years from now by typing the words “video navigation” and “failure” into a search engine. Even by then, I bet you’ll still be using Google.

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