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Are Google's glory days behind it?

Colly Myers on the rise of AQA

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Nor does Myers see gimmicks solving Google's massive accretion of what's called "Goobage".

"People come up with ideas like tags, metadata, but am I going to take the trouble to do that on every document I create? Are ordinary people? Google should pay people for adding the metadata.

"That's very valuable information to Google. Why should people donate their time for free to help Google out of a hole?", he asks.

Because they think they're helping God? It's a fair point. When simple software can create 100 new weblogs for your junk content in 24 minutes, entropy is going to out pace the most devout, Google-worshipping tagger (those spam blogs use tags too, of course).

There are more reasons that the web is in a big heap of trouble when it comes to answers. Once you've got the MySpace habit, you rarely leave the site. Myers explains:

"The 18 to 24 age group today is not using search so much. Why? People know where to go. They have MySpace - they know where the community is. They know where YouTube is. People need search engines less and less, because they don't need to use search as a portal."

This hunch seems to be confirmed out by two pieces of evidence.

MySpace is the number one destination in the US, but MySpace mail, the company's European VP said recently, is number four. So people search from where they already are, within these vertically integrated sites, and there's less value to having Google as your home page - or leaving MySpace.

(Perhaps sensing which way the wind is blowing, Google recently paid almost a billion dollars for an advertising deal with MySpace).

Another clue is this traffic report from HitWise, which saw Google (in green) gain a lot of traffic the day MySpace (in red) crashed. Click the graphic for more details or here for more details.

How Google gained from MySpace's downtime That's quite a spike.

But aren't teenagers fickle, we wondered? So they can't bet on commanding an audience?

"If they don't deliver value, no - of course not," he agrees. "The community provides the validation and without the community there's nothing. Consumers have an tremendous amount of power now and can switch very easily, so unless you add value they'll go somewhere else."

"But we could start to see browsers with the bookmarks for MySpace and YouTube preloaded, or some other form of bookmarks. That's very powerful."

There's a third powerful reason why web search isn't as good as it was.

"The 80:20 rule also applies here," he says. "Twenty per cent of the documents provide most of the value that people want. The other 80 per cent add less value. Now what the search engines are doing is indexing stuff that increasingly adds less value. Meanwhile, more and more data is disappearing into the 'dark web'. And by nature a dynamic web service is not 'indexable'."

The thought struck us, round about here, that the idea of the internet as a great leveller, bringing information to the masses, might just be about 100 per cent wrong. Or at least highly overstated.

As Google's fate is increasingly linked to amateur or highly dubious content like Wikipedia - and the many sites who mirror or scrape its content - the contrast between high quality research and low quality web search seems ever more apparent. The popular fetishisation of amateur web material is a peculiar belief as it needs to suppose that paid information doesn't exist, and isn't better. Nonetheless, aren't we seeing the emergence of two worlds of information - one low grade, amateur, and beset by entropy: the open web - and the other of high quality? Of course those of us with membership cards are laughing all the way to our libraries' expensive database collections - and we can afford to pay for quality.

Spare a thought for the rest of the world, though. Access to the web begins to look less like a blessing, and more like a curse.

Which brings us to the vexatious subject of Wikipedia.

"For me Wikipedia is a classic example where you appear to solve one problem, but don't really do so, because you create another problem. In the case of Wikipedia it created a community to generate information but failed to find a way to authenticate that information. So close, but still so far.

"I am doubtful that community based systems will be the basis of sustainable solutions. I suspect that a commercial imperative is necessary. It's the same with all these volunteer systems, they're idealistic, but no one comes up with a way of paying people."

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