Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Google

This is an issue we discuss all the time in Library School: how can we remain relevant in a world where everyone uses Google for research questions? One of the arguments I've heard a lot is that we just have to be "better" somehow. The human element means that we are better positioned to answer queries that are more complicated and multi-dimensional than "how long do kangaroos live." We can understand what our users actually want, in a way that Google can't.

I think this is incredibly short-sighted for a couple of reasons. First of all, our users clearly don't care that we may be able to offer better results (even that is debatable). They're using Google en masse, because it's free, convenient, and fast. We are losing to Google as it is.

Even worse: Google is getting better. They have an army of the best computer scientists, engineers, business professionals, and yes, even librarians. They have hundreds of billions of dollars. And they are motivated to throw all of that money at making their search tools the best they can possibly be, because they need you and I to use their search tools in order to mine the data they use to sell advertising. They have the tools, the resources, and most importantly the motivation to be the best. And anyone who says they will compromise the quality of their search engine in order to sell advertising is a fool; Google is not that shortsighted. They need us to use their search engine, and they know they need to have the best product on the market, or they will quickly be overtaken by Yahoo!, Microsoft, or Facebook in the search world.

Google will beat us at search. We cannot compete. This week they hired a UofT professor to "teach context to computers" in order to improve search. They will figure that out, and they will move on to the next way in which they can be better. They have too much money and too many resources to not conquer any obstacles they encounter. If we try and be better than Google at information retrieval, and we make that a pillar of our profession, we will be screwed. We will continue to lose market share. And we will die.

So, how can we remain relevant? That's easy: Don't try to compete with Google. We can concede retrieval to Google, because that's only a tiny part of our real job anyway. What we still own, and where Google doesn't even want to compete with us, is space. We have a physical presence in the community. We are a part of our communities. We can interact with them, connect them to other resources, connect them to each other, and provide programs that Google can't and won't. We can, and should, teach them to use Google better, along with the rest of the web. We can provide a place for them to access Google and the rest of the web.

Google doesn't want to compete with us, but we seem to want to compete with Google. They want to coexist with us. We do a lot of things they love, and they want us around. They're not killing us, we're killing ourselves by retrenching ourselves in something which may constitute a large part of our identity, but only a small part of our profession. It's time to let go of retrieval, and move on to a new era in librarianship. It's time to be better.

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