Graph search skepticism

Gary Marcus asks the right questions about Facebook’s new Graph Search:

Most search engines, including Google’s, mainly sort pages to see which come closest to some set of keywords (or their synonyms), but they do relatively little to integrate information across pages. If you want a list of all the books written by members of Congress in 2007, you can do a search, but you’ll end up lost. Unless someone has already compiled that information into a single page, you are likely to be directed to a series of individual pages, many with little relevance. It would be left to you to consolidate information across many, many pages; worse, you would have to start from scratch to get the same data for 2008.

But, in theory at least, Facebook Graph Search consolidates information over time and space (albeit in very limited ways). In effect, each user can now use Facebook as if it were a giant, custom-tailored database, not just a librarian that gives a list of documents that are most relevant to your query. Although the ideas behind Facebook Graph Search aren’t entirely original—Google can do similar things in limited domains, such as shopping, and Wolfram Alpha can do math (and draw graphs) based on data in its archives—it really is likely to change the way many people think about search…

Forget search engines. The real revolution will come when we have research engines, intelligent web helpers that can find out new things, not just what’s already been written. Facebook Graph Search isn’t anywhere near that good, but it’s a nice hint at greater things to come.

A nice hint at greater things to come?  Or, like Wolfram Alpha, another case where some of the best programmers in the world, given massive amounts of resources and time, fail to bring us appreciably closer to the dream of the research engine?  In other words, a hint that maybe there are not greater things to come, at least in this direction?

I’m not part of Facebook Graph Search’s “slow rollout,” but from the coverage I’ve read it sounds like it’s good at handling canned combinations of boolean searches.  That’s no joke, but does it really represent progress towards the goal that Marcus has in mind?

Wolfram Alpha, of course, has no idea what books members of Congress wrote in 2007, but that’s not quite fair, because Wolfram Alpha isn’t supposed to know about books.  What does Wolfram Alpha know about?  Well, a query for “Missouri Senate election 2010″ gives you the results of that election, so we know it has state-level results for those elections.  But it can’t put these together to answer “How many Republican senators were elected in 2010?”   “Senators elected in 2010″, which you might think would give you a list, doesn’t – it does, though, tell you that 24 seats went to Republicans and 10 to Democrats, along with the meaningless data of the total votes cast in the US for GOP and Democratic Senate candidates.  “List of senators elected in 2010″ gives the same result.  WA obviously has access, state by state, to the names of the Republican senators who won elections in 2010; but it apparently can’t put that information together into a single list.  Given that, I think gathering their book credits is pretty far off.

Meanwhile, a Google search for “Republican senators elected in 2010″ gives you the relevant Wikipedia page, with the complete list, state-by-state results, and much more.  And searching for “books written by members of Congress” pulls up as the first result a Roll Call article about books written by members of Congress.  Hard to complain about that.

Were any of those books written in 2007?  Who knows?  More to the point — who cares?  That’s the genius of the Google approach.  You know how they tell you, if you’re confused about something in class and you want to know the answer, you should raise your hand and ask, because probably other people have the same question?  That’s the Google principle, except they take it one step further; if you need an answer, not only do other people have the same question, but one such person has already found the answer and put it on the web.  Google can’t tell you which states that entered the Union after 1875 have public universities with animals as their mascots, or which Congressional district ranks 10th by percentage of area covered by water, which is the kind of thing Wolfram Alpha is ace at; but that’s because no one has ever asked those questions, and no one ever will.

 

 

 

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