The Ask Jeeves-ification of online search

There are some who will tell you that Ask Jeeves was right all along. I’m less sure that’s true. In fact, I’m starting to think that if you’re a technical person considering a startup, Google’s fascination with adding slow and unreliable AI chat to your results is an opportunity for you to put a brick in the throttle and run absolutely. google done.

Ask Jeeves was launched in 1997 and the idea was to write a natural language query into the box and the valet would return with an answer. (Jeeves is named after the famous PG Wodehouse character, a near-omniscient man with a “feudal spirit.” Disclosure: my cat is also named after this character.) It was popular until Google Search came on the scene: an engine with a better ability to crawl the web, among its other strengths.

This comes after a period of obvious decline in Google Search, caused in part by Google’s own success.

One of the first ways that Google Search distinguished itself from Ask Jeeves was that it was easier for anyone who knew anything about it to use. boolean search. Boolean operators (“and”, “or”, and “not”) are powerful tools for narrowing search results to get the results you want. Ask Jeeves guessed a boolean search for its users when they entered natural language terms, as Google does now, but fortune telling to a boolean search term for a user is much less powerful than a user simply entering boolean search terms. For power users, Google was obviously superior.

And now Google, for reasons better known to itself, has chosen to cripple its search operation: by adding a box at the top with AI-powered “natural language” (lol, lmao) responses. This comes after a period of obvious Google Search debasement, caused in part by Google’s own success: entire search engine optimization teams have been put together to make sure websites show up on the first page. search, since most people never click on the second one. And there has been an increase in SEO bait garbage that appears first.

SEO bait is not really new. If you look at HTML for Heaven’s Gate website, which is basically a time capsule from 1997, you’ll see a string of words at the end, rendered in the same color as the background of the website. Those words are search terms and reflect the SEO of the time: “alien”, for example, is repeated 14 times, to give it priority among crawlers. But trying to find that website illustrates the problem with Google Search now: because it prioritizes topicality, and because SEO has since changed, the original cult website isn’t in the top 10 results, or even the top 50. , for “Heaven’s Gate”. ”

Am not the first to observe that Google search has gotten noticeably worse Through the years. Part of the problem is, of course, that the web is bigger than it used to be. Some of them are new SEO tactics. Part of this is the growing volume of large number of language model — Google really shit in its own nest with that one. Some of it is inexplicable: what deal with the devil did Pinterest make to get its largely useless results to rank so high?

“I looked up some products on Bard, and it offered me a place to go buy them, a URL, and it doesn’t exist at all.”

However, the switch to an AI chatbot-like search response tells me that Google doesn’t understand why it beat Ask Jeeves. it was a better experience for Advanced users. Most of us don’t want a dubious and accurate summary answer derived from unknown websites; we want to be able to judge the source of our response by looking at the original copy. Lowering the ranking of links, meaning websites that could potentially be created by real people, means removing that. And more importantly, AI has slowed down Google’s responses. Are you patient enough to wait for a perhaps wrong answer from God knows where? I am not.

I mean, even Sundar Pichai has noticed the problem: “I looked up some products on Bard and it offered me a place to go buy them, a URL, and it doesn’t exist at all,” he told the boss at Decoder. Cool product bro!

For the first time in my life, I think Google Search is vulnerable. Take Bluesky, which is, for a user, almost exactly like Twitter, except it’s not full of crypto spam, bloody videosand Elon Musk. A chance to beat Google: A startup that looks and feels like the old Google Search but returns better results, perhaps by choosing different dimensions to index. Maybe someone smart can use AI under the hood to filter out the junk.

But maybe trying to figure out how to crawl the web in its degraded, AI-filled, SEO-bombarded state is too technically complicated. There has been a view, promoted in large part by people promoting their investments, that AI will devalue human labor. But what if the rise of AI-written nonsense makes humans more valuable? If you want a human result, not machine-generated SEO bait, you may want to involve a human in the search process. It could move towards having a conservator.

In fact, that’s another early Internet search model that could be resurrected: Yahoo! Directory, which started in 1994. At the time, it was one of the most useful ways to get around the web: a human-indexed directory meant to be browsed by users. It was crushed by the supremacy of Google Search and closed in 2014. There is even an existing signal here that is valuable: the popularity of adding the search term “Reddit”. I don’t know how long it will work in the LLM era, but it suggests that a number of users really want results from other people.

I don’t know what the real solution is. All I know is that I smell weakness, and if you’ve ever been the kind of person who yearned to take down a giant using just a slingshot, now is the time for you. Because the main problem with turning Google Search into Ask Jeeves is that we already know what happened to Ask Jeeves.


Scroll to Top