Google developers do it live

23 November 2008

Now I get it. Google's SearchWiki isn't an attempt to kill off Mahalo or Wikia Search or part of an elaborate self-destruct plan for the number-one search engine, it's an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records with the World's Largest Extreme-Programming Project.


Strangely, Google hasn't slapped a 'beta' logo on the SearchWiki pages. These are where you get to see comments on the search results. Maybe it's so pre-alpha that it's coming round the other way. The number of times the interface – which is still screwed up – has changed, they're coming back the other way through the Greek alphabet. I'd say they're somewhere around psi (ψ) but that would imply the people working on this project have some insight into the desires of Google's users. Which, looking at what's happened so far, isn't the case.

I could describe how SearchWiki fits in with the regular Google search pages but, by the time this gets posted, it will probably have mutated into a spinning Möbius strip of commments that, if you click on it, goes straight to a fake Canadian pharmacy.

What's important is what's happening in the background.

The Google engineers clearly thought SearchWiki was ready for prime-time about two days ago and gave registered users the ability to promote favoured search results and comment on them. This bit isn't so strange. You can think of it as a Delicious bookmarker built into Google in that the rankings don't affect the regular search results. At least, not yet.

You can also see other people's comments. And this is where Google's team started to realise it had to start doing some on-the-fly programming. Think of the combination. Most popular website on the planet? Check. Unmoderated comments? Check. Large body of spammers happy to fill any unfilled box on the Interwebs? Check.

It didn't take long for spam to turn up on the entries for Techcrunch, which led to Mike Arrington posting a way to remove the comments in case Google didn't get around to it. The SearchWiki went dormant for a while and then came back having pushed the comments to a dedicated page. It's still broken as, if you want to read the comments, you only seem to be able to read ten of them and no more. And, to do any more searching, you have to go back to the regular search page. I can only assume they will eventually settle on a workable design using the extreme-programming technique of trying something out, seeing how many users hate it and doing something different or just kill it stone dead.

The spam situation isn't half as widespread as the Techcrunch example might have you believe. I tried plugging various search terms that I expected to turn up spammy pages but didn't see anything like the entries on Techcrunch. Even the spam on the Wikipedia results was pretty desultory. However, I could see the beginning of a spammer arms race in a couple of places, where they were just beginning to add links to their competitors' entries.


At the same time, I could see no evidence that spammers were even using Google Trends to pick up on hot search terms to pollute. Maybe I don't understand enough about the operation of the spam business but this seemed an obvious target. However, there is also a tradition of spammers hanging back until a gameable system has bedded it. This episode may say more about Techcrunch's audience than it does about the spam industry as a whole.

If SearchWiki tells us anything, it's a marker for the point where people realised Google isn't some magical innovation machine but is simply flailing around, looking for quick fixes to keep its momentum going.