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Learning Lab

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd Edition

Google Needs People

by Peter Morville, author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd Edition

The reigning emperor of search caused a stir recently by launching a beta version of Google News that features integrated access to 4,000 continuously-updated news sources. Two lines on the main page were responsible for much of the ruckus:

"This page was generated entirely by computer algorithms without human editors.
No humans were harmed or even used in the creation of this page."

As one might expect, this put news organizations and their editors on the defensive. "It's a useful service, but it's not going to drive me to the unemployment office tomorrow," stated Douglas B. Feaver, executive editor of washingtonpost.com.

Of course, it's not just editors who feel threatened. Google's hyperbole sent shivers down the spines of graphic designers, software developers, information architects and other humans who earn a living building Web sites and Intranets.

Partly, we fear the truth. Google News will not be the first nor the last software application to perform some work more efficiently and effectively than humans. Mostly, however, we fear the lies and the harmful ripple effects they cause.

Google's claim that it offers "a news service compiled solely by computer algorithms without human intervention" is misleading, at best. What about the programmers who wrote the algorithms? What about the designers and architects who structured and organized the templates? What about the thousands of reporters and editors who wrote and selected the articles?

Related Reading

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
Designing Large-Scale Web Sites
By Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville

Google Is Dead

By reveling in declarations of pure automation, Google buries its true identity.

The beauty and success of Google derives from its ability to tap the emergent intelligence of millions of human-defined links.

Like the fabled creatures of mud and sticks, Google is a golem, an inanimate jumble of algorithms and interfaces, held together by the connective tissue of links.

No people. No links. No Google.

Similarly, the potential of Google News lies in its ability to leverage the distributed intelligence of thousands of editors and reporters.

No editors. No reporters. No Google News.

Without the continuing engagement of humans, Google is dead. End of story.

Google Be Good

By employing the "no humans" spin to spark publicity, Google risks offending many of its strongest supporters within the IT community.

First, it insults our intelligence. Second, it makes our lives more difficult. We now need to deal with bosses, clients, and colleagues who surmise that since Google can automagically build a newspaper, entire Web sites and corporate portals will be next.

The folks at Google should remember that their success has been propelled by the good will of the people who build the Web. It is the designers, developers, architects, and bloggers who first fell in love with Google and have been evangelizing the heck out of it ever since.

It's not as if Google has no competition. In fact, a study of search engine rankings earlier this year placed Google third after MSN and Yahoo. Given such powerful rivals, Google will never cross the chasm and rise to the top based on technical superiority alone.

Google's brand will be the critical success factor. Google became the darling of the online world by engendering trust and respect among those who work on the Web. It is these mavens and connectors who can push Google past the tipping point.

For their own sakes, Google's marketing folks should be good to us early adopters, at least until after the IPO.

Why We Still Love Google

Despite the hints of arrogance emanating from HQ, this child of the Web remains near and dear to our hearts. How do we love Google? Let me count the ways:

  1. Google Works. Google combines a simple, yet attractive interface on the front end with a sophisticated, multi-algorithmic approach to relevance ranking on the back end to produce surprisingly good results.

  2. We Trust PageRank. Google doesn't sneak paid search listings into our results and it doesn't annoy us with winking, blinking banner ads. We trust the democratic, bottom-up, blog-building, link-loving nature and integrity of Google's PageRank system.

  3. Google Is Us. Google is the keystone of a complex adaptive system that enables individuals around the world to share ideas, opinions, and experiences. Google doesn't replace people. It empowers people.

  4. Google Excites Us. Perhaps most endearing is the fact that Google energizes us about the future. Google freed us from the constraints of full-text search, demonstrating the power of adaptive, emergent solutions.

As designers, developers, and architects of the Web, we can hardly contain our enthusiasm. We're the ones who fight for Google as the corporate search engine. We're the ones who make Google work in our uniquely challenging Web and Intranet environments. We are the defenders and caretakers of the Google brand.

We can generate similar fervor for Google News. Chris Sherman, associate editor of SearchEngineWatch.com and owner of a Web search consultancy has already fanned the flames with the following quote:

"I think it's going to turn the way we get online news upside down ... It will change everything ... It will transform the landscape of news on the Web ... I'm blown away by this thing."

And we can identify new uses for the technology. Imagine, for example, Google News as a customizable product. Clients select a custom collection of news sources and tweak the algorithms and interfaces to produce corporate newsletters or highly-specialized vertical portals.

These sparks of intellectual zeal and passion result naturally when we are exposed to such cool software products. The only thing that will douse the flames is if Google keeps denying that Google needs humans.

Google Is dead! Long Live Google!

O'Reilly & Associates recently released (August 2002) Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd Edition.

Peter Morville is president of Semantic Studios, an information architecture, user experience, and findability consultancy. For over a decade, he has advised such clients as AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, Harvard Business School, Internet2, Procter & Gamble, Vanguard, and Yahoo.

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