Friday, August 01, 2008

Time for a Cuil Change?

Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it's time for a cool change

The lyrics date me, I'm afraid. In the lazy days of summer, FM radio channels memories.

There has been considerable buzz this week about the announcement of Cuil, a new search engine positioned as an alternative to Google. In a time when we use a brand name (Google) to fully replace its function (search), any competitor will have an uphill fight. How many brands of facial tissue (i.e., Kleenex) can you name with confidence?

Cuil has a lot going for it: big VC backing, big ex-Google brains, and a big index. It has a newspaper style UI layout and relational grouping. That is, it clusters results based on cross associations.

In the past few days, however, Cuil has been slammed in the blogosphere and the tech press, mostly because of operational site issues, weak search results, and strange dynamic associations between search results and images. When I did this boolean search on Cuil: +"burton group" +"chris howard", I got no results (!!!). I did the same search on Google and resurrected my ego with multiple results. Clearly, the Cuil index has some issues (or perhaps is smart enough to know who I am and provide a narcissist smackdown).

Early difficulties, bugs, and operational issues aside, Cuil has value even as a conversation piece. As I flew home from meetings last night, I was too tired to work, but my brain was in that ponder-state that leads to blog posts. I thought: so what if Cuil isn't perfect? Maybe its (unintended) role is to dislodge our search ambivalence. Even just at the UI, why are we OK with a somewhat random linear list of results (where companies also manipulate their position)? An annotated result set (i.e., with a few lines of text) has more value, especially if the first results are the most likely to be relevant. Relevance would be increased based on other people's searches and click paths.Furthermore, relevance would be more personal if the engine knew my history and used it as a filter.

Sometimes I want search to replicate the old experience of climbing through dusty library stacks. The most interesting things I learn are not a result of what I set out to discover. Ambling through the stacks at McGill University led me to information I never would have found if I only performed a surgical title search. Those finds were findable because the resources were grouped in proximity to my initial target.

Then there's just the joy of browsing.

So, the press asks me about Google's response to Cuil...

Even if Cuil does not succeed at displacing a significant percentage of Google's mindshare, Cuil should be a reminder to Google to keep innovating.It seems that the engineers at Cuil (who came from Google) saw a hole in Google's offering and took advantage of it. These "masters of the algorithm" lead the charge to better search results.Those engineers back at Google are paying attention, and are likely looking at algorithms beyond the Cuil innovation. Like many systems that are reaching peak performance, search can only be made so much better. Google needs to address user experience needs that supercede the core search function.

For now, the majority of users will continue to "google" by default, unaware that their experience might be improved if they chose an alternate search provider.The bigger concern is that our ambivalence towards status quo keeps us from breaking out of the Google paradigm into something (apologies for this next word...) richer.

(Re-reading that last sentence, is Google in danger of becoming Microsoft who is in danger of becoming IBM? I'll save that for a different post.)