Fallows on getting answers

Great column on the state of search by James Fallows in today’s New York Times (online version here), entitled “Enough Keyword Searches, Just Answer My Question”. Fallows doesn’t mince words.

His article starts:

Search engines are so powerful. And they are so pathetically weak.

He goes on to lament how ill-suited today’s KWS engines are at answering questions. His use case is trying to find figures for California’s school spending in their historical context and/or relative to other states’ school spending, and he finds no satisfaction from “normal search tools”.

… When I finally called an education expert on Monday, she gave me the answer off the top of her head … after I’d wasted what seemed like hours over the weekend with normal search tools …

Fallows casts the problem in terms of automated question answering and cites several projects working in that area, one of them a federal intelligence project named ACQUAINT, and the others web-wide efforts ranging from shallow question-answering technologies like Ask.com (now augmented with search refinement tools) and meta-search clustering like Clusty.com.

But there is another way to cast the problem, an alternative metaphor to the web as giant library or file cabinet. The web’s billions of pages of content are uploaded into the giant file cabinet by people, including an astounding number of experts in a vast array of subjects. Even if the web as seen through the scratched lenses of a search index can’t find the answer, or even if the answer isn’t even out there, there’s an expert out there who knows the answer, as Mr. Fallows realized.

Bloggers make up a rapidly growing population of experts who contribute content to the giant library. There are now somewhere between 9 million and 12 million blogs, dealing with a mind-boggling diversity of subjects, and with real depth in many of those subjects. We (our industry and our government) should push full-speed ahead in research on automatic question answering (our security may depend on it, as Mr. Fallows points out), but we should remember that the experts are already there. We just don’t know høw to find them yet, unless we have “education experts” in our address books.

Blog search is heading in the direction of web search, using the file cabinet metaphor and adding on top of that the stream of web pages metaphor, which is how RSS is most often treated and indexed. The unique nature of blogs, e.g. the 1-to-1 relationship of author to content and the historical record of expertise amassed by each blogger over the course of many posts, should be mined to provide ways to find answerers, not just answers.

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