Google Personal Search: Not On Your Terms
Next time your Google search results show you something unexpected, don't blame your typing. It's probably Google doing what it does best – showing you the information it thinks you want to know. The more obscure your keywords, the more likely the ubiquitous search engine is to "improve" your search term, often frustrating your intent and arousing your temper.
Google Suggest, launched in 2008, originally featured suggested spelling correction, auto-suggestion for commonly used words and real-time query completion. Since 2009, with the arrival of increasingly "intelligent" algorithms, spelling correction has been automatic, with the option to display results for the original search term. As the Official Google blog considerately puts it:
Suggest's second cousin, Personalized Search, opened its doors to a wider audience a few weeks later. Initially available only to signed-in Google Account users, Personalized Search generates customized results by using a cookie that stores search history. The feature now extends to any Google user, signed-in or not, if she has not opted out of history-based customizations. Personalization for signed-out users is not even genuinely personal – it applies indiscriminately to all users of a shared browser on any given computer.
Today, Google not only presents synonyms for words in the original search, but also terms derived from the same stem – thus "painter," "painting" and "painted" feature in results from a search on "paint." Further refinements included the identification of phrases that are linked in some way to the search expression; for example, a search on "formula for area of a circle" returns suggestions that include "area formula for geometrical figures."
In November 2011, the wheel turned full-circle after Google removed the "+" operator, a popular search modifier, used when specifying an exact search. This significant reduction in search flexibility enraged users, and the resultant backlash was far greater than anticipated. "Inside Search," the official Google Search blog, eventually acknowledged that although, in most instances, "Google's algorithms make things better for our users, in some rare cases, we don't find what you were looking for."
Verbatim search arrived in November 2011, restoring a user's ability to search against an exact term, spelling mistakes and syntactical errors included. Although initial reaction was mostly favorable, purists still hankered after a feature that could be turned on permanently. The verbatim option is only valid for each individual search session and only appears after the first search is completed. Search engine pundits will doubtless be watching that particular space with interest.
As Google's Ben Gomes put it in a recent blog post on the evolution of search, "If the past is any indication, we don't know what search will look like in 2020, but we wouldn't be surprised if it looks nothing like it does today.” Given that the google.com domain was first registered as recently as 1997, betting against it looks like a bad idea.