Friday, January 31, 2014

The Year the Internet Stopped Being a Computer

This has already turned into a watershed year for me. After 20 years of online activity, and 15 years of using Google (I was an early advocate), I've switched to always using natural language searches.

"Natural language" is just a fancy way of saying "normal human speech". As an early Internet adapter, I've been in the habit of using computer-speak with computers, rather than phrasing things conversationally and expecting them to understand. So if I were trying to find listings for 2008 Camrys, I'd have framed my query like this:

allintext:camry toyota 2008 "used car" price -review

...asking Google to find me pages containing (in their actual visible text) "camry", toyota", "2008", the phrase "used car", excluding pages containing the word "review".

These days, I simply search for 2008 toyota camry used car prices, and I actually get better results than when I try to finesse it. The tipping point has been reached.

The glib upshot might be that Google's computer is now better at understanding my human-speak than I am at speaking computer-speak. But the truth is a bit more subtle. There are three main factors at play:

1. At the Internet's current scale, there's no choice but to accommodate natural language search.
Google used to be geared toward nerds, but now it serves the world, so it's been forced to accommodate - even favor - natural language. What's more, they've neglected their old nerd tools along the way, so there are fewer and fewer ways to force searches to adhere to your parameters. It feels like a frustrating lack of power, but I've come to accept that we don't really need those tools anymore. More often than not, Google simply knows (it's a real - though little-discussed - example of artificial intelligence).

2. Web sites have prioritized discovery via natural language search queries.
This is a bad thing when shmucky webmasters scheme to lure visitors to their unhelpful spammy sites. But Google is doing a better and better job of weeding those out. So the process is working as it should: the page built at the dawn of the internet by cool Indonesian guys which calculates crow-fly distances between any two world locations can be found simply by simply searching the phrase "how far is it". As well it should!

3. Google triggers a plethora of web apps from natural language searches
Search for 124 x 236 = and you'll be shown a calculater with your calculation pre-keyed in and the result shown in bold. Search for 25 euros in US dollars and you'll be shown currency converter app. Search for AAPL stock and you get Apple's stock chart. Etc., etc., ad infinitum. You used to need to type special terms to trigger these apps. But, per #1, the nerds lost and the masses won, and we no longer need to manually trigger them.

Yesterday capped it. I needed to know how many days had passed since last September 22nd. So I searched, like a frickin' idiot, for this: how many days since 9/22/13?

And I got my answer in the very first hit.

There's no going back.

Also, it's now officially ridiculous that Internet news is categorized as "High Tech" or "Science" news. The Internet has as much to do with tech at this point as the TV industry does.

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