On this past Friday morning, one headline at the Cryptonomicon.net site read, “Text of Bill Gates RSA Keynote Available.” Running down the left margin of that page were Google-generated sponsored links, including “Automatic gates”; “Iron gates and fence, no welding”; even “Custom aluminum gates.” If I were paying for one of those supposedly context-driven links to my own retail site, Id want my money back.
Yes, security is a real problem on the Net, but Im not sure that Gates was correct when he said at the RSA Conference that “the one real question mark that exists” in peoples computer and network activities “is will the network be reliable enough, protecting information so that people feel that their privacy is preserved? Will they be willing to use e-mail and avoid the spam, and will their computers be reliable and not subject to these attacks?”
I applaud Gates attention to these concerns, but theres another big question mark as well: “Will I be able to find the information that I need and achieve the results that I want?” Microsofts own TV advertising for Office 2003 doesnt talk about peoples computers merely running, without data corruption or reduced performance due to malicious attacks: That campaign highlights (OK, it absurdly exaggerates) the satisfaction that people get from distilling compelling work product from the raw material of enterprise data.
Those Office 2003 ads suggest that collaboration and presentation tools are the key to conspicuous achievement, and Microsofts passion clearly moves in that direction: as crypto and security guru Bruce Schneier remarked at RSA, “When [Gates] talks about features and cool things [in his products], he gets animated. But until he gets animated about security you know hes not going to solve the problem.” I suggest, though, that the third leg of the productivity stool is search technology. You have to be able to find it before you can analyze it, or share the results of that analysis.
Its ironic, therefore, that Google offers to sell me fencing accessories when it sees the word “Gates” in a headline, while also placing Googles own search appliance product at the head of the list of hits for “search appliance corporate database.” Yes, Google can find things with an ease and effectiveness that genuinely change the world, but two different people sitting down at the same Google interface can have wildly differing success in finding relevant information.
One 1998 Berkeley project, “Cha-Cha,” sought useful associations not based merely on text strings, but also on sharing of link paths suggesting functional relationships between one document and another. Another project, at Monash University in Australia, allowed users to select larger portions of a document as the basis for search, and preserved the searches and the associations that they found as new “squishy” links that themselves became new information.
Googles own PageRank approach has been extensively discussed, but so have techniques for “gaming” the PageRank algorithm: It only required 32 deliberately placed links to make Google return the official biography of President George W. Bush as the top hit for “miserable failure,” according to Eric Bonabeau of Icosystem Corp. in his remarks at the OReilly Emerging Technology Conference last month. As the quantity and complexity of the information on the Net continue to increase, and as peoples demand for access continues to shift from archival research toward real-time reporting and exception management, the need for continued investment in search will remain–as will the opportunity to be gained from a competitive edge in search performance and effectiveness.
Is security important? Absolutely. But lets not lose sight of why people buy IT in the first place. If systems dont return the information that people want, then security features are about as relevant as the burglar alarm on a car that cant be steered.