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Search engines great example of what happens when systems become too complex to manage

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Google Search Results And Complex Systems Explained


Ever get frustrated because you can't find what you want using Google? Or some other search engine? Us too. Many people are feeling that, over the last year or so, the results they get from searches on the Internet have become less and less useful and the more Google tries to improve them, the worse they seem to get. Is it because Google is intentionally trying to get you to click on ads in pursuit of profit? Probably not. It's more likely the result of Google falling into the trap of creating a super-complex system that is, in essence, unpredictable, and uncontrollable.

Super-Complex Systems Explained in Plain English

A super-complex system is a system that has many INTERACTING variables, where the variables AFFECT each other. For example, the human body is a super-complex system. Let's say you have a thyroid condition. The level of hormones secreted by the thyroid interact with hundreds of other factors, such as the secretion of adrenaline, and how the other organs in your body function. Not only does thyroid function affect other organs, but other things in the body affect what the thyroid does. That's why treatment is challenging. If you "disable" the thyroid to counter-act hyperthyroidism, you have to replace its function with medication, and therein lies the rub, since if you get the levels wrong (and the exact level for each person is an unknown), you create other problems. The appropriate levels "depend" on a good many things. It's the same for the brain, or other super-complex systems like the economy, both of which are so complex because everything affects everything, perhaps the best way to put super-complex systems "in a nutshell".

Back To Google Search

As Google as evolved, that challenge of giving you what you want in search results has gotten more difficult, because the Internet has grown, and changed, become more complex itself, with the advent of social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc), and the ability for anyone to publish anything, with no oversight or quality control. The amount of content to be searched is so huge it's mind boggling. In response to this, Google has added more and more factors (called signals) to determine the quality of websites, so that' there are now over 200 interacting signals used to rank websites. Couple the issues of "quality", with the difficulty in having machines figuring out what's "in your head", and you end up with a super-complex system. And that means that not only are the search results getting less useful, but they are not likely to get better.

The Google "Wall" And Super-Complex Systems

At some point, when a complex system becomes a super-complex system, several things happen: Nobody, not even those that create the system or maintain it, can predict how any specific change will affect the final outcome. For that reason, the effects of trying to "make a super-complex system better" can only be determined by actually trying things out. There is simply no way to predict whether any change, let's say in how Google determines quality,except to actually make the change, put it in production as a limited test, and then evaluate the results. Which is what Google does.  The problem is the change-test-evaluate cycle is relatively slow and may need to be done thousands of times until one gets reasonable improvement because there are so many variables to test. On top of that, a change may yield better results for some searches, but create a nasty mess for other kinds of searches, and all that has to be evaluated. It simply doesn't work. Change something, and some things may get better and some things will get worse. And that's the core of the problem. Google has hit the wall.

Is It Fixable?

In a nutshell, no. You can't fix a super-complex system by making it more complex. Worse, though, because nobody understands or can predict what a super-complex system will do, case by case, how do you fix it? You can't, and it goes back to the law of unintended consequences magnified. Make one thing better, and make seven things worse. Try to fix the things that got worse, and you might have two things that get better and some new problems cropping up.

Are Other Search Engines Better?

In a way. Bing is slightly better in terms of search quality, at least from what can be seen by a user, and there are other engines that appear to provide better results, because they use less signals, and their algorithms for displaying search results are simpler. Ironically, it may end up that the simpler a search engine is (within limits), the better it will be, except that complex systems tend to grow more complex, not more simple. However, what's interesting is that if it's the case that simpler is better, there's a suggestion about where search must "go" it it's to become and stay useful to end users. But that will have to wait for another time.

Conclusions On Google Search Results and Super-Complexity

It isn't going to get better by making things more complex. Nobody, not even the Ph.D's at the Googleplex, can predict how their search engine will behave. If you can't predict behavior, you can't control it, except on a trial and error basis, which, it appears, Google is trying to do. The more you try to "fix" super-complex systems, the less likely you are to make them better. The future of search engines lies in smaller, less complex systems.

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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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