Occasionally updated personal site and blog

Monthly Archives: October 2011

How to compete with Google in Search

To google something has become a verb. Google search is the overwhelmingly largest source of traffic for many sites. Google’s market share in most markets is higher than its competitors combined.
Google has brand identity, search quality, technological quality, and page speed down pat.

So how would you compete with Google search? (Not that google search is bad, but a little friendly competition is always a good thing, and it’s interesting from as a thought experiment).
Frontal assauls (doing the same thing as google, but trying to be better) like yahoo and MSN have hugely failed. In fact, dominant market positions are seldom eroded by frontat assaults, but rather by changes in market demand. The reason why Microsoft has lost so much influence to Apple is not that Macs have replaced windows (globally, Mac OS still has a tiny, if profitable, niche of the PC market), it’s that the market demand shifted so that the whole category of PCs became less relevant since the introduction of smartphones and tablets. Likewise, if ebay sales decline, it won’t be because somebody builds a better auction site (network effects are just too strong for that), but because somebody invents a better way to sell stuff than auctions (like the ability to sell used books back to amazon).

So what are Google’s weak points?
– google does not trust humans -> it cannot use e.g. a human-generated catalog
– google is the no.1 target for spammers, the same way windows is the no.1 target for malware -> a smaller rival might be unnoticed/not worthwhile for spammers, and therefor be able to offer better quality, at least for a while
– google sucks at / has no customer service. That is a good thing, cost-wise, but also keeps people away that require more hand-holding.
– google is run by engineers, so it under-values things like design, and other emotional, touchy-feely topics.
– google is huge, so serving small niches is not interesting.
– google does not understand multiple meanings of a word (for eample, “go” could mean the game, verb, or programming language) – although that is probably the kind of hard compsci problem that google is best at solving

Ideas for competition:
– give me LESS, not more, results (but probably not from a huge human-generated index – that idea failed with the first iteration of yahoo…). E.g. when searching for reviews, google gives me spam and shops (yuck) and reviews from the big newspapers, what I want is 5 blog posts from people like me who have bought and used it, or a link to a great site like kenrockwell or dpreview for cameras)
– serving a single, canonical result. A lot of times, when I search google, I’m looking for something specific – say, the download link for a certain program, or the website of a known organization. Google is pretty good at finding that, but also gives me a lot of results I do not want, which sometimes leads to unwanted results (for example, there were some cases where, due to clever SEO, people looking to download the VLC video player got sent to sites that charged for the download). Finding those canonical links would be labor-intensive, but maybe you could farm it out on the cheap on amazon’s mechanical turk?
– serve a niche very well (flight search or weather are separate category from general internet search, what else can be served by a non-general search site? (technorati for blogs failed…)
– do something sales/service-intensive, e.g. a service where you need to sign up local small businesses. Needs a large salesforce, and therefor large investment, but e.g. yelp has done that successfully.
– rank pages by reputation / social links. For example, when evaluating some product or technology, it would be great if, instead of wading through a sea of marketing drivel, I could get all the links posted by people who follow people who I also follow on twitter, or articles written by somebody whose writing I previously flattered or saved to instapaper. Sort of the holy grail of the internet, apart from being a massive privacy headache.
– better, complex tools for slicing and dicing data, not just finding facts (cf. Wolfram Alpha – which launched hugely mispositioned as a google search competitor, but is actually great at certain specialized tasks)

My experience with pair programming

It spreads knowledge about the codebase
Since two people worked on the code, two people know intricately how it works, and can fix bugs in it without first having to spend time to learn the inner workings. Yeah, I know, in theory everybody should be familiar with everything, but in time-constrained practice you often have the same people fix bugs who wrote the code, keeping the others from getting to know the code of a feature. But even if only the people who wrote it know the code, if it was created by a pair, you already have two people who know it.

It spreads good practices
Even if you keep up with news about tools and practices, you can never know everything. Almost every time I pair, I learn something new – e.g. some eclipse keyboard shortcuts, a firefox add-ons for debugging, or a useful library class.

The code is better
You rarely write sloppy, “good enough for this one time” code – after all, the other guy will see what kind of code you write, and you don’t want to be embarrassed. And if you do, the other guy will point it out and correct it.

The design is better.
Two people have more ideas than a single person. If both are competent, they will agree to throw away the bad ideas, and combine only the good ideas of two people. As for APIs, two programmers think of different use cases, and make sure the API can handle them.

It avoids being stuck.
A lot of time is wasted when you’re stuck – situations where you’ve tried pretty much everything, and still can’t get your design or implementation to work. A second person will bring a fresh pair of eyes (and brain) and often think of exactly those things that you forgot. Or, in a case where you painted yourself into a corner, and have secretly felt that you should throw your efforts away as sunk costs and try a different approach, he will prod you to finally do just that.

It’s exhausting
I can program solo for long stretches of time, but when doing pair programming I usually take a break after two hours max. Paired sessions are much more intense, since they move faster, since (see above) you’re never stuck.

It’ only suitable for certain occasions
It’s a total waste to use two highly-qualified programmers to do simple, well-defined and understood tasks – examples: Defining a web form, setting up the base configuration for a project, or fixing selenium tests. It’s great, in short, for anything that is hard and new.

It’s expensive
A pair of programmers does move faster than a single programmer, but not twice as fast, so you spend more programmer time on a piece of code when doing pair programming. You do gain all the advantages mentioned above, though – so if it’s worth it really depends on the kind of work you do. In my experience, it’s best for integrating new developers in a team, and for anything that involves designing/implementing an API.