Will Google Related be able to sort the wheat from the chaff?

How a society or individuals grow their information processing capabilities is unfathomably complex, but perhaps certain aspects follow this route. Raw ‘data’ is collected, filtered and processed into ‘information’; information is rationalised and ordered into ‘knowledge’; knowledge is applied to specific circumstances as ‘wisdom’.

At all stages experience and communication with others affects this experience – sometimes enhancing, sometimes adding confusion. So, to short circuit the impossible effort of building lifetimes of experience into every subject matter, is it possible to go online for trusted or trustable advice?

It might depend on what the recipient intends to do with the information. If it’s which bus to catch, a restaurant recommendation or who’s the best band, it is likely to be a somewhat different approach than asking where best to invest life savings or what to do about a certain ailment.

In a pre-digital communications world, enquiring minds might have access to only a narrow group of family, friends, peers, or recognised experts. Now, not only are far more of even those groups accessible, some of their knowledge has been distilled into search algorithms and automated responses.

With the internet, an answer to any question is only a couple of clicks away, but how can anyone judge if it is providing the right answers? For many questions, there may be no definitive single response, but the options for processing the untold peta-bytes of data into guidance towards a perceived goal are manifold.

Social media now allows us to ask that wider group of ‘friends’. Many social networks will be a bit hit and miss with responses, even those like Quora, which are more dedicated towards asking and answering questions.

Anonymous recommendation engines might offer more insight as they tap into the wisdom of the crowd, but they are not without problems either, being prone to overly pessimistic critics, paid-for enthusiasts and all shades in between.

And although some sites and subjects garner large amounts of feedback, which might sort out the wheat from the chaff, others with minimal responses will struggle to give suitable guidance.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is possible to take the recommendations of an organisation to give some guidance to a ‘suitable’ answer, but how do you trust its definition of suitability? One thing that helps an automated response look plausible is how much attention is paid to the context of the question. Who asked it? Where are they? What has been their behaviour leading up to it?

This is the type of thinking behind Google Related, which is Google’s approach to furthering the answers to a search, aimed at providing potentially useful and interesting related content to users engaged in searching for something. Of course there is a downside – users have to be willing to allow Google to gather information about the web sites and pages visited and use it to work out what they might be interested in.

On the face of it, this is not new. There have been many other attempts at collecting information about browsing habits from simple cookies to intermediary data collection in ad servers and systems such as the anonymised Phorm personalisation service once touted at ISPs.

At various stages these have been thought of as being helpful, then intrusive and eventually dangerous invasions of privacy or mechanisms for the distribution of malware. Data is valuable, especially when collated and massaged into knowledge which can be applied wisely, or not.

The collection of behavioural and contextual data to personalise offers in e-commerce has also been present in many solutions since the early days of the internet. While this is often seen as less intrusive, particularly if it delivers tangible value to the end user, there is still the perceived issue from the risks of this valuable data falling into the wrong hands.

Many examples of massive personal data leakages from government and public sector through to enterprises large and small do little to allay fears.

The difference this time is this is Google, a company that has seen off the hoards of search engine competitors from the 1990s, is miles ahead of its only real mass-market rival (Microsoft’s Bing) and has achieved the ultimate accolade of becoming a verb.

One reason for this is Google’s approach, and it’s nothing to do with its arguable mantra about not being evil, but simplicity. Just like the clean lines of its search engine pages, Chrome and other some other products (Android notwithstanding), the Google Related toolbar and results are a minimal disturbance to the real estate of the web page and browser.

If Google takes a relatively softly, softly and intelligent approach with the suggested links it delivers to search requests it will be seen as useful, rather than intrusive to the search process. The challenge then is that in the step to Google monetising Related, it does not overstep user expectations of the meaning of relationships, by overly shifting its emphasis from supporting user serendipity to the commercial aspirations of paying target advertisers. That would not be wise.

Rob Bamforth is a Principal Analyst working with Quocirca, focussing on the areas of service provision and mobility. His experience couples a number of years he has spent in sales and marketing, with an in-depth understanding of technology deployment and service delivery, which together give him an approach that focuses first on the business need, with technology as the supporting service.