November 21, 2008

Google's New "SearchWiki" -- Super Feature or Risky Graffiti Playground?

Greetings. Google has introduced a significant new search feature that is now accessible to users who are logged in to Google accounts.

Called SearchWiki, it allows users to modify the results returned for any given search query. Users who are not logged in to Google accounts will see conventional results without these added features.

Capabilities associated with SearchWiki include the ability to promote (that is, move upwards on the results display) result entries associated with particular searches, or to delete chosen results from the list that is displayed to you for any given search.

You can also place comments on search results, and this is where things get really interesting, and potentially very messy.

Changes that you make to your listings via SearchWiki only apply to your own results. Other people making the same search will not be affected by promotions or deletions that you have made.

However, any user who is logged in can choose options to display the number of promotions or deletions that have been associated by the SearchWiki user community at large for each item in a set of search results.

And -- here it comes! -- SearchWiki users can choose to view the comments that all other users have associated with search results.

This last feature is of course potentially the real beaut. While we may safely assume that most people will use the comment feature responsibly, it also seems certain that a small percentage -- which may still represent a relatively large number of persons in absolute terms -- will view this public comment capability very differently.

It seem inevitable that popular search results in particular will quickly become laden with all manner of "dueling comments" which can quickly descend into nastiness and even potentially libel. In fact, a quick survey of some obvious search queries shows that in the few hours that SearchWiki has been generally available, this pattern is already beginning to become established. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to visualize the scale of what could happen with the search results for anybody or anything who is the least bit controversial.

While Google provides a "thumbs down" mechanism to flag "inappropriate" comments for review, questions about how inappropriate materials will be defined, and how well Google will be able to handle large numbers of comments that may be flagged, remains to be seen.

This is all a very complex issue. On the one hand, reasoned comments can be very valuable. And since comments are only visible to Google users who are logged in and specifically ask to see them, comments will not be viewed by users who don't meet these two criteria.

On the other hand, it seems likely that persons, Web Sites, and other associated entities who feel that their search listings are being "polluted" (however they personally define pollution) may become extremely upset, especially since (unlike with YouTube comments, for example) there appears to be, as far as I know at this time, no way for a Web site owner to definitely delete comments, preapprove comments, or turn off the comments feature entirely for SearchWiki results associated with their sites.

They could try to use the "thumbs down" mechanism on each "offending" comment tied to every search query that they can think of pointing at their site. But this would obviously be utterly impractical in many cases, there's no guarantee that Google reviewers would remove the comments, and similar comments could quickly reappear in any case.

One thing we can depend on -- many individuals and sites who may feel that comments on their search results are defaming or otherwise damaging will likely demand some better way to control those comments, and in some cases will want to take legal action against the comment authors -- who will generally be very difficult to identify and locate.

This suggests that despite the real positive value that could come from the SearchWiki mechanisms, Google itself stands a significant chance of becoming the target of various significant legal actions that could be instigated by a range of parties who feel themselves to be aggrieved by the SearchWiki system.

One potential way to avoid this dilemma would be for Google to provide a means for sites to indicate that they do not wish to participate in the SearchWiki ecosystem (perhaps via a robots.txt type of indicator). Another possibility would be for sites to have access to a set of comment controls similar to those available to submitters of videos on Google's YouTube.

Google SearchWiki is pushing the search envelope in a major new direction that invokes a range of new and complicated questions. Such devotion to innovation is part of what makes Google great, but also can carry significant risks, complications, and sometimes serious unintended negative consequences.

It will be fascinating to see how SearchWiki plays out. Fasten your seat belt!


Blog Update (November 22, 2008): Serious Pollution of Google SearchWiki Results Already Appearing

Posted by Lauren at November 21, 2008 12:05 AM | Permalink
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