23 January 2009

The Internet still needs Yahoo! Search.

Searchers are sadly creatures of habit. When we find a search engine that delivers results we're happy with, we tend to stick with it. Although we might be open to changing search engines if something better comes along, most of us rely on one search engine. Google once was that better thing that came along and changed the world of search forever; it's still, in my view, the best search engine around. I rather think that too many people agree with me at the moment, for it can become dangerous for choice when a sizable majority of people come to prefer the same thing. With a new Yahoo! CEO at the helm, rumors that Yahoo! and Microsoft will strike a search deal are swirling once again. Such a deal might or might not make sense from a business point of view, but any potential tieup between these two Internet giants remains as bad for the consumer as ever, even though John Q. Consumer may not realize it yet.

I've always been one to dabble with different search engines, but ingrained habits die hard. Although I used to run the odd search with Hotbot and other search engines, Altavista was my bread and butter search engine for a long while; it was the site I searched with first almost every time. When I discovered Google, it quickly usurped Altavista's role in my search life. So, even though I may preach a lot about how having multiple search engines is very important, I myself use one search engine disproportionately more than I use any other. I want to change, though. Truthfully, the more I use Yahoo! Search the more I recognize that it is a necessary counterweight to Google. Trusting in Google's search results means accepting that Google's ranking system will always list the sites you want to see. For the most part, I am satisfied with Google's search results, but I still wonder, "What else is out there? What am I not seeing?" I don't want to totally depend on Google to let me know what is on the Web. When I search with Yahoo!, I often come across different sites that I don't see on Google for the same query even several pages into the search results. Sometimes these different sites are worth viewing, sometimes they're not, but they're certainly not so heinously inferior that I don't want to use Yahoo! anymore. Truth be told, I've thought that Yahoo! has grown into quite a decent search engine for a while now, unlike Microsoft's offering Live Search. Yahoo! does seem to have a preference for older sites, and it can't be compared to Google when it comes to indexing the Web (for instance, it thinks I last posted on this blog last spring!), but it's still the second best of the offerings we have right now. Even though I don't think too highly of Live Search's results, I'm glad that Microsoft is still in the search game, too -- the engine can always be improved, and I know Microsoft very much wants to become a serious search player. However, if Microsoft and Yahoo! end up partnering and canning Yahoo! Search in favor of Live Search, the Internet searcher is the big loser here. Not only would we lose a good search engine, but the new second best search engines would be even further behind Google in terms of quality.

Webmasters in particular should want to see multiple search engines continue to coexist. I normally don't get a lot of traffic from Yahoo!, but it really likes one of my recent projects for some reason and it has been sending me more traffic to that project than Google has so far. It's great for webmasters to know that they are not doomed to total obscurity just because one search engine doesn't like them any longer. If Yahoo! and the other search engines soldier on and hopefully grow more in popularity, neither webmaster nor searcher will have to depend on one company's ability to search, index, and rank the Web. We still need Yahoo! Search as much as ever.

21 January 2009

Google Video is a service in transition.

Google Video recently announced that it will soon no longer accept new uploads. In effect, the service is transitioning from a hybrid video hosting platform/video search engine into a video search engine only though it will still host all its preexisting video content. I must admit I'm not as upset at this change as I am at some of Google's other recent moves, like the ending of development of Google Notebook, but that's probably because I've used Google Video primarily as a search engine for a long time now. (Of course, it also helps ease the pain to know that Google is still operating the Web's most popular user-generated video site: YouTube!) I've found that it's generally faster to search for videos on GV as opposed to searching individual video sites and it's also more effective because GV knows about more video sites than I do. I wouldn't say that Google Video is quite on par with Google's web search service in terms of delivering quality, relevant results for every search, but it's not too bad and I'm glad that the Google team plan to continue to work at tweaking it. A common complaint seems to be that YouTube dominates the search results, which is true, but I've personally found a lot of obscure, often country specific video sites through Google Video as well. Frankly, YouTube is the busiest online video host so it may well always dominate video search engine results.

Google Video did have at least one definite advantage over YouTube: it allowed all of its users to upload long videos whilst YouTube now restricts virtually all of its users to uploading videos with lengths of ten minutes or less. Formerly at least YouTube directors could upload longer videos -- actually, existing YouTube directors still can, but new directors no longer gain this ability. In part because of YouTube's restrictions, much of Google Video's popularity has stemmed from its welcoming stance towards long videos. In particular, it became a popular online destination for documentary watchers. Classic documentaries uploaded with the permission of their producers will still make Google Video a worthy video site in its own right for a long time to come, but it's sad that there'll be no new documentaries added in the future and that the diehard doc fans will have to find a new place online to call home. In the long run, though, I think Google Video will reach a larger audience as a search engine than it ever could just as a video content site in competition with YouTube. I don't agree with those who think YouTube will eventually usurp GV's search role, too -- it just makes more sense to search for video content on Google Video than it does to search on something called "YouTube."

18 January 2009

In the face of a recession, Google shrugged.

I decided to focus this blog on the services offered by the five major Web players because at the time I started this blog I believed that they were coming up with some of the most innovative online projects and also because I thought a project backed by one of the giants would have a better possibility of surviving long-term. I have to admit now that I was totally wrong. None of the giants -- with the possible exception of Amazon -- really seem to stand by their projects. None of them -- with the possible exception of Amazon -- take care in what projects they choose to tackle and release to the public. They seem to release and kill projects at a whim. It might not be the bandwidth bills or server costs that kill their projects as so often happens with independent startups, but the projects die pitiful and sudden deaths nonetheless. I've long been planning on opening a sister site to this blog that just covers independent web projects, and the latest spate of project killings by Google has made me more determined than ever to do this. Frankly, the giants just can't be trusted.

Google has in the past done quite a good job at keeping its projects going. Yes, Google Answers was unceremoniously killed, and several projects have been ignored after their release or acquisition. The company has been reluctant to use the axe, though, and I thought that showed a commendable commitment to both its users and its projects. With the economy tanking, things have changed. Google's 3D community Lively was killed before most people even knew it existed. The long-ignored projects Jaiku, Dodgeball, and Google Catalogs were more recently canned. In my view, Google's recent decision to cease development and disallow signups for Google Notebook was the worst move at all. This was a useful service and seemingly a reasonably popular one; it seems to be the killed service that will be most missed judging from the online reaction to Google's recent moves. Granted, Google hasn't started hated its users -- it is throwing them a bone where it can, letting current Google Notebook users continue using the service and opensourcing Jaiku so that anyone will soon be able to start their own microblogging service on their own servers. Still, I have a hard time believing that these types of cuts were really necessary on the part of a huge company like Google unless they are in worse financial shape than is commonly believed. I have to wonder what service might next be axed for arbitrary reasons...perhaps it will be Blogger, the Google service I count on the most apart from search? Is any Google service really safe?

What is most unforgiveable about all this is that Google did not really explore their options with these canned projects. They didn't put ads on Google notebooks. They killed Lively before it had time to build enough of a userbase to get corporations and other advertisers interested. They didn't let Jaiku become a serious Twitter competitor when Twitter was experiencing serious growing pains because they never allowed open signups. It's almost as if the company didn't want these services to be successful -- or, more likely, they just couldn't be arsed to explore all these potentialities. The most annoying thing about web giants is their incredible inefficiency. On one hand, they have the talent and ingenuity to produce these often very interesting projects. On the other, they seemingly don't have the manpower or the will to build many of these projects up into something profitable and successful. They do have people willing to greenlight projects only to then kill them off suddenly, though.

Perhaps we'll be able to look back on this one day and say, "Well, it was just the recession. Google's stock sure took a beating back in '08 -- they had to streamline. The way they acted then didn't really reflect the kind of company they really are." I'm not confident that it is just the recession, though -- I think the malaise and inefficiency that has long afflicted Yahoo!, AOL, and Microsoft's web division may also have infected Google. Users beware: the service you love today may well be axed tomorrow.