Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Who is Responsible?

Two news items caught my attention this morning. They seem unrelated, but each one touches on an interesting trend.

The first item was about a couple (or family, the story isn’t clear) who got “lost” – twice – on a road trip in Pennsylvania after having depended on a GPS unit to provide travel directions to certain locations. (This "getting lost with GPS" seems to be a growing trend.) The couple in the story was led astray because 1) their GPS was set to avoid toll roads, even though they wanted to take the quickest route, and 2) in one of their target cities, there happened to be two streets with the same name, and the GPS sent them to the “wrong” street, even though the address was exactly what they had entered. Though the author didn’t say so explicitly, there was a subtle criticism that the GPS unit was “wrong” and that it should have provided some disambiguation service and divined where they wanted to go and how to get there.

Really? Isn’t it the user’s responsibility to ensure that the unit’s settings are correct, just as it is the user’s responsibility to enter the address in such a way as to be unambiguous? (In this case, also entering the name of the hotel would have made a difference.) And, um, isn’t it the driver’s responsibility to notice that it is taking several hours to complete what should have been a much shorter journey? Why, Mr. Driver, did you just follow along blindly instead of stopping early on, reassessing the information that was driving (pun intended) your route, and figuring out where the error lay? It seems ridiculous to drive for hours on what seem like the “wrong” roads and then blame the GPS. (And this author is .... a travel writer.)


The second item was a story about how the children of non-English-speaking immigrants in the U.S. help their parents navigate the online world. Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention:
A Spanish speaker in Los Angeles looking for an orthopedist might go to and type in "oficina ortopedista Los Angeles." The top result is in Madrid. "There's no excuse for us not doing a better job with this," says Trystan Upstill, an engineer at Google. Upstill says this is a problem all over the world. There are a lot of Turkish speakers in Germany, for example, who have a hard time finding what they need. But right now, if you search in Spanish, it's difficult for Google to guess that you want an orthopedist in the U.S. Upstill says to determine that, Google needs to deal with mind-bogglingly high numbers of combinations. "It's quite clear that you have to build very scalable algorithms to not just deal with native language speakers in a particular country," Upstill says. "It's a difficult problem and we're always looking at how we can do a better job here."

Of course it's "difficult for Google to guess that you want an orthopedist in the U.S." So...include that info in the search string! It’s the user’s responsibility to search correctly and to learn how to use search tools effectively. For example, the name of my hometown is the same as towns in at least three other states. When I search for something related to my town, especially related to town government or services, I always add the name of my state so I don’t have to wade through irrelevant results for police or library services in those other same-name towns in the other states. By this simple step, I control my search results and get much better results. Now, if Google always filtered my search results by my location as the Google engineer quoted above suggests, it would be difficult for me to, say, do research about those other towns, since Google would assume that I am only interested in information about my hometown. I would have to specifically include the names of those other states in my search, and I would have to know about them all in advance! In fact, my work as a professional research consultant requires that I be able to get at everything out there, so I keep Google’s automatic filters turned off.

How far can – or should – search customization go? In online search, too much automatic filtering and too many customizing algorithms combine to limit our results only to what a search engine engineer has determined that we “should” see. And generally speaking, unless we tell them otherwise, they think that we "should" see results that are relevant to our geographic area, and are somehow related to searches we have done previously.

Rather than layer on even more algorithms, Google would be better advised to provide more up-front, search-responsive guidance on search techniques, so that even casual users can develop better skills that will help them find what they need quickly. And they could provide meaningful feedback during the search process to help users refine their search strategies and get better results.

For example, in the Los Angeles case described above, Google could have responded (in Spanish) to the search string with something like, “These results are for Madrid, Spain. If you meant California, add that word to your search string.” Or add a simple check-off form to the front page so that the user can limit the search to geographic area, language, format, etc. Yes, I know that Google provides those options on its Advanced Search page, but how many consumer users know about that page, or use it to construct effective search strategies?


Our expectations for search services and information providers continue to escalate: We want search engines, GPS units, and other information devices to “know” what information we want or need, and to deliver it in exactly the way that suits what we hope know about us.

As services become increasingly customized and automated, many people have let their search skills languish, to the point where they don’t know how to find what they need. At the same time, having given over “information responsibility” to the providers, they seem to have also given up the ability to evaluate the information that is pushed out to them. So…they don’t know how to find what they want, and they don’t know that what they are getting is incomplete, inadequate, and even inaccurate.

Who is responsible?

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