Google, simplicity and research

Handy search tools and features

As Google guards its perch at the top of the search engine tree, it continues to introduce tools which make life easier for many internet users.

Search engines have come a very long way since the initial concept of matching words, exactly as they're typed, to websites which seem relevant. They now also attempt to discern what a searcher is most likely to be looking for - even if the user isn't quite sure how to phrase it themselves.

Some of Google's features include the following:

Synonyms - As well as results which precisely match a search query, Google includes results featuring similar keywords, or which are similarly themed. For example, a search for 'Manchester dishes' will bring up food culture information, but also local restaurants and academic facilities.

Correcting misspelled words - If Google determines that a word has probably been misspelled in a searcher's query, it will initially show results for what it perceives to be the correct spelling, while subtly informing the user that it has done so.

Display of popular media results - On searching for a well-known music act, their official website and Wikipedia entry will pop up - but, often, so will any videos or images which are particularly popular with fans. The burgeoning Google Knowledge Graph will make even more use of this practice.

Choice versus simplicity

However, in becoming a more open playground for the simplicity-keen mainstream, is Google doing enough for those who need it to perform more challenging tasks?

The latter doesn't refer to technical professionals, but to those such as young students, mature academics or hobbyists, who often need something more than what is already at everyone's fingertips.

In the digital world, time has seen a definite shift towards simplicity, both in design and function. Back in the 1990s, assistance from someone with a computer science degree was generally required to fix problems with a mere 'send and receive' email action, via dial-up internet.

Conversely, we're now at a point where email setup on a smartphone can be achieved by a seven-year-old. Meanwhile, companies such as Facebook have broken the tradition of mysterious online aliases by insisting on the most straightforward practice of all - using real names.

As seen in the features above, Google's algorithms have also moved to achieve this simplicity. Advanced search options are available, but they're not quick. For example, a user can click to filter within the 'past month' or 'past year' - but to filter within the last six months or five years, dates must be manually entered for every search. To be truly precise, users have to visit a separate Advanced Search page and go back and forth between that and results.

Industry experts have also noted that Google now presents fewer results per page, in which the same domains consistently appear.

Making real discoveries

This channelling of simple, obvious information means that many of us have to work less hard to get what we want - but it can also be argued that it limits our patience and field of discovery.

A similar issue occurs within contemporary television viewing. Thanks to services such as Sky+, we can routinely avoid advertisements for products and services - but in doing so, it's also possible to miss promotions for other television shows, which means we're less aware of the choices available.

Online, there's a risk of merely scraping the condensed, bullet-pointed surface of a topic, instead of finding out something truly fascinating. What if the key piece of information you want to find is obscure and buried somewhere within the internet several years ago, by a person with no SEO skills?

To some extent, Google is combating this by applying over-optimisation penalties, to avoid presenting shallow content written purely for SEO purposes. But the gap between complex tools for professionals and easy ones for the general public is still widening - and this is not helpful for those stranded in between.