Building a better Google

One of the great things about writing for a magazine such as PC Pro is the chance to meet some of the movers and shakers of our industry, and get a glimpse at possible futures of computing.

Building a better Google

Some glimpses come as sixty-foot multicoloured PowerPoint presentations that nobody could miss, while others are mere hints, leaving me to put two and two together and hopefully get four (although 3.4567 is more often the result).

Recently, I heard a talk by John Guiver from the machine learning group at Microsoft Research, demonstrating a new .NET framework for machine learning that helps programmers to develop artificial intelligence apps. One demo showed how to build a system that learns and validates the accuracy of web searches, perhaps destined to be plugged into Bing, Microsoft’s supposed “Google killer”.

Just because a search engine returns different results from that of Google doesn’t make it poorer, as it may be that the new engine’s results are more valid. Microsoft’s newly launched search engine could certainly do with some help: as is my usual practice, I made Bing my default search engine to see whether I could live with it. As I wrote these words I needed to look up Infer.NET, but it produced nothing useful, while Google returned far more relevant results. I couldn’t believe that Bing wasn’t indexing Microsoft’s own websites, so I tried enclosing my search term in quotes, which produced a correct result set with Infer.NET at the top.

Perhaps you’ll be able to select different search modes, so that in say “work” mode the engine won’t return any distracting videos
You might shout “Bingo!” at this point, or perhaps not… Obviously, the competition to build a better search engine has always been keen, more so now that advertising revenue from the web is such big business.

In a recent upgrade Google added Search Options, which most people I’ve spoken to have missed. The extra “Show options…” link on the bar just below the Google logo lets you restrict your searches to certain types of content, so you can just search forums or reviews and return the most up-to-date results.

Personalised search

These are very nice tweaks, but I can’t wait until we have a search engine that learns my preferences and filters out the sites I consider to be poor, or that offer repeated or irrelevant content. Perhaps you’ll be able to select different search modes, so that in say “work” mode the engine won’t return any distracting videos or celebrity gossip. When coding I’d love to be able to set my search preferences to ASP.NET version 2 or later to eliminate all articles on .NET version 1, which are frankly of very little use now, and then have the results ranked by date of submission, as the most recent answer to a query is probably the one I’m looking for. Someone researching a story might on the contrary want to find the oldest, original references to the topic.

More intelligent search engines that learn from our usage is what we need. A lot of Google’s strength derives from the amount of time spent by webmasters optimising their pages to get a high Google ranking, and from the companies involved paying for AdWords. I think we’re a long way off, but once a search engine can learn my preferences it will also be able to target advertising in an entirely new way, and this should be the incentive for such a development, rather than merely making our online lives easier.

NxtGenUG Fest09

These musings about future improvements in search engines were sparked by a trip to NxtGenUG’s excellent Fest09 event in Cambridge. Regular readers will probably remember me mentioning the NxtGenUG user group last year, a rapidly expanding group of like-minded people interested in Microsoft technologies and pizza.

They meet all over the country, usually once a month, but every year they migrate to some central venue for their Fest event (sounds like something from a Discovery Channel wildlife documentary). There are speakers from Microsoft as well as independent companies and developers, and the atmosphere is always friendly and relaxed, although this year’s Fest was different in one rather disturbing way – there was no free pizza! Instead, a splendid spread of far more exotic foodstuffs was laid on, but I still missed that pizza.

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