TCS Daily


Future Search

By James D. Miller - March 7, 2003 12:00 AM

Will Google threaten the New York Times? Google recently purchased Blogger, perhaps to use the information-rich structures of blogs to enhance its search capacities. A superior search engine could challenge both big media companies and advertisers.

A media company's most valuable asset is its brand name. Since you can't read everything, you must make quick, often uninformed decisions about what to read. Brand names save time by signaling quality. You might waste thirty seconds before realizing that an article on some anonymous blog is abhorrently written whereas, for example, you know that an article published in the New York Times will at least be well crafted. Since it's not worth reading the first paragraph of every published article to see which you would most enjoy reading, many readers just peruse publications of the branded media.

Now imagine using some idealized search engine that could determine which news articles you should read. If you trusted the engine you wouldn't care if it presented an article published in the Times or an anonymous blog. You don't get any more pleasure, per se, from reading an article in the Times than our anonymous blog; it's just that there is a higher probability of you liking the Times's article. This advantage causes quality writers to want to publish in the Times, which further strengthens the Times's brand name. If, however, some search engine found the articles you would like regardless of publication place, it would no longer matter to reader or writer where an article appeared.

Such an advanced engine could be based upon your rankings of previously read articles. The engine could find articles whose contents matched others you have liked. It could further use the rankings of readers who have preferences similar to yours to predict which articles you would most enjoy. Amazon.com currently allows readers to rank books and recommends new books based upon such a system. Since we read far more articles than books, however, a futuristic news search engine would have more data to work with than Amazon does.

This search engine might first present an article to a few readers. If they ranked it highly, the article would then be shown to a few more. Articles that attracted consistently high rankings would earn large audiences. If numerous people participated in such a system, any one user would need read only a few articles that many others had not already ranked. An article's success in attracting readers would be based upon its quality, not its place of publication.

An advanced search engine would pose a dilemma to advertisers. Its personalized information would be useful to them in trying to figure out what goods they could successfully sell you. Search engines, however, would reduce the need for advertising by reducing search costs.

Just as we don't often know what news articles we would enjoy reading, we also don't know what products we would benefit from purchasing. Commercials often force us to consider products we may or may not want. If a search engine could find desirable products, however, commercials would have less influence on our behavior.

For example, like many Internet users, I now find it easy to determine when my favorite authors release new books or when a movie I will likely enjoy premiers. Consequently, the Internet reduces the value of book and movie advertisements directed at people like me because the advertisements often don't contain any new information. So, the better job a search engine does at finding you desirable products, the less commercials would affect you.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist feature for TCS. He is the author of Game Theory At Work which will be published this April by McGraw-Hill.
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