Navigate your way through the search wars

Over the last decade, the online search engine has been gradually replacing the bricks and mortar library as the reference tool of choice for consumers and businesses.

While this is nothing new, Microsoft Corp.’s offer last month to acquire Yahoo! was a poignant reminder that Google and Yahoo! make their money from selling ads, not by providing research or lookup services to the community.

When Microsoft announced its takeover bid last month, the company published a letter from Chief Executive Officer Steven Ballmer to Yahoo!’s board of directors. Ballmer said a merger of the companies would enable “synergies related to scale economics of the advertising platform,” which would “strengthen the value proposition to both advertisers and publishers.”

He also expressed a desire to discuss ways to “optimize the integration of our respective businesses” to create a company with “exceptional display and search advertising capabilities.”

Though a merger might possibly result in more useful Windows Live or Yahoo! search results, the over-riding goal is to help advertisers, rather than users.

This is not to vilify any company that makes money from advertisers (especially when we do it), and it would be overly simplistic to say you get what you pay for. You can find all kinds of handy information — and get useful communications services — using Google or Yahoo! without paying anything to these companies.

If you’re a Webmaster and you want more people to get to your Web site, Google has plenty of tips, with its Webmaster Tools, Google base and other services. But this just goes to show Google strives mainly to help publishers and advertisers.

So what if there’s a really useful piece of information that’s posted to a Web site operated by someone who isn’t trying to sell a product, and therefore doesn’t bother using Google Webmaster Tools? You may or may not find this information through a Google search. On the other hand, you can be pretty sure a Web site operated by someone wanting to sell something — rather than provide information — is likely to turn up higher in your search terms.

This may come in handy if your job is to buy goods and services for your company, but it’s not as good if you’re looking for information that doesn’t have a commercial purpose.

This is one reason the Knowledge Ontario agency a started a program, Ask Ontario, which employs librarians answering queries from users, referring them to bona fide library resources. Ask Ontario’s project manager compared Google search results to “a whole lot of books on the floor,” whereas Ask Ontario librarians will use catalogues established to answer queries rather than satisfy commercial interests. Although it’s available only in Ontario, Ask Ontario is one non-commercial alternative to Google, Yahoo and other advertising-driven online search tools.

No one denies that Google has its use, and it’s a lot faster than walking or driving to the library. The free search engines are beneficial to companies other than the advertisers, but if your users think of Google, Yahoo and MSN as online libraries, they are mistaken.

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