Search Engines Don't Have Taste

To avoid being stuck in games of semantics, I'll clarify that I think that they don't have good taste.

Good Taste

What is taste? Taste is a set of preferences. I prefer running to rowing, for instance. Taste is, by definition, personal. I have my own tastes and you have yours.

What is good taste? This is where it gets tricky. My best definition is: preferences that identify and maximize inherent quality. Here we get into murky waters in an attempt to define Quality or "good design." I'll leave that up to the reader. For now, we'll use the description: "you know it when you see it."

There is one trait of good taste that is important to note. Good taste is inherently social. Someone can only have good taste if others with good taste agree. By definition, if you have different preferences from someone with good taste, you probably have bad taste.

Search Engines Have Bad Taste

Before I attack search engines I do want to clarify the scorecard I'm using to make this claim. Search engines are a miracle. When it comes to matters of trivia they are phenomenally good. If you know what information you are searching for, and can form the proper terms into a question, your question will most likely be answered. If you want to know how to change a car tire, the date World War 2 ended, or a recipe for pasta sauce you will get a link to the best answer.

However, search engines have optimized for this single use case at the expense of link quality. I feel this every time I land on a page that was obviously hand tailored to out SEO every other page on the internet.

We all know these pages. We experience them every day. You can identify them by some of their bad taste properties:

  • Slow
    Slow to load. Slow to interact with. Slow to get to the information you actually need.
  • Ad filled
    Self explanatory.
  • Over-styled/under-designed
    This is an interesting distinction that I only realized as I was writing this post. Once the page loads, these pages load in tons of CSS to render a colorful interface filled with animations, custom fonts, and lazy loaded high definition imagery. But, more often than not, the flash gets in the way of the purpose of the page. It's not designed for transfer of knowledge, it's designed to look pretty.
  • Over optimized for recent events
    More and more I see recent news articles creeping in on search result pages. While sometimes useful, it is getting in the way of interacting with the term itself. Instead I'm taken to a page where the term is at best tangentially involved.
  • Contain rambling paragraphs of low quality writing
    This is a case where the search engine isn't even that good at trivia. Recipe pages are the worst about this. At some point recipe writers figured out that adding a wall of poorly written personal anecdotes made the page score better on Google. Combined with ads, this experience is particularly bad on mobile.
  • Not shareable
    Not that you can't share them so much as you wouldn't. These links aren't ever shared between people as a means of knowledge transfer.

This last bit is the most important here. As I claimed above, having good taste is social. So why does the first page of search results contain links that I don't like visiting?

Why Good Taste Is Important For Search Results

Quality links exhibit the opposite of the traits listed above. They are timeless. They are well written. They are shared between people with good taste. But most importantly, they don't contain the veneer of SEO optimizations that make pages so disappointing.

They are often quirky, a little out dated, and contain interesting information that doesn't target one keyword repeatedly. They are often written by a domain expert who doesn't have the time or energy to play the SEO game. They often live on a site that contains personality. Personality opens the door to discovery.

Smart people often read and write widely. When you find a website that isn't afraid to explore many ideas across many domains, you can explore those domains with them. You solve the "you don't know what you don't know" problem. Although we are often exposed to toxic amounts of novel experiences nowadays, novelty as a whole is a good thing. It's the first step in learning something new. True novelty (not just another post/video/tweet about the same topic), is surprisingly rare.

Surfacing high quality, good taste links is the open door to discovery.

Adding Good Taste To Search Engines

Here I need to leave the rant behind and try to explore some ideas around how search engines could resolve their taste problem.

Given that taste is inherently social, I do think that some kind of social element needs to play into adding taste. The most basic version is to score links that have been shared by people of domain expertise or influence higher than links that don't. The morally questionable version of this is to measure how those same domain experts interact with individual links. Spending more time on a page (or even better, knowing what they have annotated or highlighted), signals that the quality of a link is higher than a link that has been skimmed.

Staying power should also be more heavily weighted than it currently is. An article written two decades ago that is still referenced today probably obeys the lindy effect. It will stand the test of time for another couple of decades. Instead of punishing the link for staleness, reward it. This has a lovely flywheel effect as well. If you incentivize evergreen content, more evergreen content will be written.

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