April 18, 2024

Looking for chatbots? Pah, this startup is testing Yahoo’s old set of web directories • The Register

Interview Web search, long dominated by Google, is back in play, at least among incumbents and entrepreneurs, if not among frustrated Web searchers.

It’s not just that Google Search has gotten worse, according to some accounts, although Google maintains that its results are still better than those of other search engines. Both Google and Microsoft are betting that search can be improved with the incorporation of generative AI, despite the risk of hallucinations and misinformation. Game on.

As recent research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill observes, “For years, the fields of information science, information retrieval, and human-computer interaction have studied how people make use of information systems.” search and have investigated ways to improve search interfaces. “The integration of generative AI chat components is an important advance that can profoundly change the way users interact with search systems.”

Microsoft’s merger of the chatbot and search into Bing has yet to significantly improve its search market share, as we have noted. However, search companies are experimenting with AI to see if safe, but not necessarily correct, answers from large language models can loosen Google’s grip. There is also the possibility that antitrust intervention will change market dynamics within a year or two.

Google is not standing still either. The Chocolate Factory just renamed its Bard AI service to Gemini and made the chatbot more accessible on mobile devices, as well as more expensive through an optional premium subscription offer. It doesn’t replace Google Search, but it makes message-based response queries an alternative to keyword document searches.

UK search startup disagrees

Thomas Chopping, a UK-based economist who founded the scientific search startup El Toco, discussed this topic with Register. He believes that as long as there are websites there will be a place for search engines, because of the economics of web publishing and the different needs that conversational queries and web search satisfy.

“Over the decades since its launch, we’ve seen Google constantly try to make search more predictive, adding things like autocomplete and, eventually, instant answers,” Chopping said. Register. “This has the consequence of increasing the amount of time users spend on your site, at the expense of visiting the underlying data sources.”

“Most of this time, their attempts were ridiculously weak,” he said, “because for a company drowning in money, they seemed unable to match common queries with the correct answer, and resorted to personal data to try to estimate what people wanted to”. to see.”

Chopping began working on El Toco in 2016 and launched the service in 2023.

“We were finishing development of our website when ChatGPT came online, which has the crucial difference of being much better than Google’s search box at understanding real human queries,” he said.

“So Google’s vision of a magic box, which finds everything you type in it, seemed one step closer to becoming a reality. Obviously, this was pretty scary, after having spent so many years with a competing idea. Because to this, especially the little fear, we’ve spent much of the last year thinking very deeply about its applications for search.”

Suddenly, there will be no incentive to produce content for a website if it doesn’t attract users.

His first observation is that conversational tools and web search serve different purposes.

“One is intended to answer discrete questions. The other is intended to help users find websites,” he said.

“Let’s assume for a second that, over time, the conversational version becomes so overwhelmingly good that no one looks at websites anymore. This is a real paradigm shift in how the web works because, as you pointed out, suddenly there won’t be incentive to produce content for a website if it does not attract users.

“Websites could stay online and go behind paywalls, but this obviates the usefulness of chat-based search, because then you won’t receive any information. Chat-based search providers could then pay sites website for its data, This is a fight that Google has already inadvertently started, particularly in Australia.

“But that business model would have to be funded somehow, and it’s not clear that people en masse would want to pay for instant answers to their questions. So it’s a business model that will always be endangered by search engines based ​​on websites that allow you to obtain the answers for free, by visiting their original source.”

His second observation is that Google and Microsoft, in their rush to implement chat support, seem to have forgotten how people use the web.

“People do a lot of things online that aren’t just asking questions, one of which is browsing,” he said. “If I’m bored at a train station, or just curious about a topic, I often just want to browse. It’s impossible to navigate with conversational-style search tools, which focus exclusively on answering questions.

“Right now, this is playing into the hands of Meta and TikTok, because it takes so much effort to find good quality websites through search engines that people stopped bothering.

“I visit Register because I’ve been reading it since college, not because I did a Google search for “good IT related news websites.” Social networks then compete with each other for this attention and have almost ceased to be social networks and have become content factories. This is particularly evident on Facebook itself, which is inundated with non-content, with the aim of keeping you there in favor of using competing platforms that display more of the same meaningless content.”

Getting back to the basic

El Toco, Chopping said, is a search engine with filters. Crawled pages are tagged with various metadata, such as gender and page purpose, to make it easier to filter out less relevant results.

“The goal is to make Internet searching efficient and accurate,” Chopping explained. “But everything can also be done without knowing the context of the search.

“We don’t need the user’s personal data to determine which results to show, because the user can express it themselves. We don’t need AI to turn the search into a conversation, because this can be done with a few clicks of the user interface.

We don’t need AI to turn search into a conversation

“Charging users for web search is a model that clearly doesn’t work, thanks to Neeva for proving it, so we allow ads, but if users care, they can go to a menu and just turn them off.”

Chopping expressed skepticism about people’s willingness to pay for AI search help when they can still get free search results.

“The economist in me would suspect that they are trying to see what they can do when it comes to prices, because it is easier to reduce prices than to raise them,” he said.

However, he believes AI is important in the search business, even if it is overrated.

“It’s definitely very important,” he said. “But in my opinion, it’s more of a marketing question than anything else. People in finance are now fitting a line of best fit to charts and saying, ‘Oh, we used machine learning to generate this stock prediction.’ I said, ‘No, you didn’t. That’s the line that fits best.’ Just a few years ago, that’s what they would have called it: they would have said, ‘Oh, we use statistical models.’ Now it’s all AI.”

Chopping insists that the scale of the Internet means that it is necessary to have some level of automation. Toco uses machine learning on the backend to classify the pages it crawls and tag them so they can be filtered more efficiently.

“I think the front-facing presentation of AI is a question mark right now, and we’ve decided to go in a very different direction than Google and Bing, and time will tell which one is right,” he said. saying.

A new age?

Chopping believes a new era of competition in search is coming.

“I almost don’t want to say this, but the barriers to entry for search are much lower than people think,” he said. “Brave has been making a lot of noise about its search engine. And one of the things that made me smile in the article that sparked this conversation was that its search engine said how expensive it is to run a great search architecture.

“Right now we’re in the friends and family stage. We have ours up and running. We’re quite a bit behind Brave in terms of traffic volume, but it’s actually a lot more scalable than people think.” With the cloud coming, I have a feeling we’ll see more competition for Google to attack its core of basic general search queries.”

I almost don’t want to say this, but the barriers to entry for search are much lower than people think.

“That doesn’t mean those companies are necessarily going to make money,” he said, “because Google has a first-mover advantage and it’s been very difficult to take that away. But one of the other things I do notice on all of the other platforms search is that they don’t seem to have many original ideas.

“Now ChatGPT comes along and everyone is like a herd of cows saying, ‘Oh, search, there will be a conversation. Let’s all go after that.'”

Chopping is skeptical that search engines want to chat. “I’m actually an economist, not a technology economist,” he said. “Most of my friends work in finance. And when I asked them about all these tools, they said, ‘We don’t really see how it will help me in my day-to-day life, like trying to find things on the Internet.'”

The opportunity in search, as Chopping sees it, is in vertical markets that Google, with its crawl-everything approach, doesn’t serve very well.

To address the growing difficulty of determining that content is genuine and not AI-generated nonsense, Chopping said El Toco is banking on quality over quantity. When asked if the engine is essentially reviving the model pioneered by Yahoo, a directory of curated sites, Chopping smiled.

“You’re literally the first person I’ve ever talked to who mentions that without me asking first and the answer is ‘yes, it is,'” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing… all of those web directories disappeared, at least in some ways, about 10 years ago. What we’ve basically done is resurrected them.

“And there will come a point where we will have to be a little more flexible about what search results appear there. But to your point about whether the information is genuine or not, the only real way to do it at the moment, in my opinion, is really paying attention – with people – to what you are and what you are indexing.

“It has become extremely difficult to find web content outside of social media if you don’t already know the website you want to visit,” Chopping said. “There is a growing awareness of this problem, people are increasingly wondering if there is someone, somewhere, doing something about it. That’s what we’re trying to do.” ®

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