Is Google's Knowledge Graph Good or Evil?
Google recently introduced Knowledge Graph, touting it as the next step towards semantic search, a more intelligent search that knows what you’re searching for, and understands relationships between people, places and things. It appears to be a useful time-saver for certain popular search topics. But in its initial debut, some observers are seeing a threat to the fabric of the web...
What Is Google's Knowledge Graph?
The Knowledge Graph is a dazzlingly ambitious project. Google is attempting to map – or "graph" – every thing in existence - people, places, objects, and ideas. So far, the Knowledge Graph database contains over half a billion "things," to use Google's own technical term. But that's only a start; Knowledge Graph also maps the relationships between things, for an additional 3.5 billion database records. Even so, the Knowledge Graph includes only a fraction of all the things and relationships in the universe, and will never be complete. But it does some interesting things for search.
In Google's announcement of the Knowledge Graph project, they highlight the search query, "taj mahal" as an example. Those two words may refer to multiple things: a building in India, a musical group, or a Donald Trump resort, for starters. A traditional search might yield a page of results that mix up all of these very different things; the user must pick through irrelevant results to find the one(s) desired. These traditional search results are still displayed by Google, but over in the right-hand sidebar is a new Knowledge Graph result.
When a search term is ambiguous, Knowledge Graph presents multiple options and asks you to choose the set of results that you really want. Choose the building in India, and Knowledge Graph displays a set of links to things and search results that pertain to it. Without clicking through to a new site, you can learn where the Taj Mahal is, how tall it is, when it was built, its architect's name, even its phone number. You also get a brief summary of what it is, credited to Wikipedia. But you never have to leave the Google search results page.
This is all good for users who just want a quick summary of a subject. It's also good for Google, which has an interest in keeping users on its pages instead of sending them off to Wikipedia. But what about Wikipedia, and other sites that depend on visitors for their livelihoods?
Google has an inconceivably huge stockpile of "things" that it has acquired from other sites on the Web. Is it fair for Google to "borrow" the facts and figures compiled by others, and present them prominently on their search page? By combining things that it has essentially appropriated, Google can, conceivably, become the only site that users need to visit in order to learn what they want to know. That could pose traffic problems for other sites, and raise antitrust questions from regulators. It also looks quite similar to the automatically produced content created by "scrapers" that Google disdains and punishes.
Looking Further at Knowledge Graph Results
Not satisfied with Google's hand-picked Taj Majal example, I decided to see if Google could help me quickly answer other questions. So how old is Mick Jagger, anyway? As soon as I typed "mick j" in the search box, my answer appeared in a huge knowledge graph to the right of the regular search results. Okay... he's 68, married twice, and has 7 children. That could be enough to stop some searchers from visiting the top search results in the left column, which include the artist's official website, his Wikipedia entry and an IMDB profile? Could even make a grown man cry.
But what about websites and products that directly compete with Google? My searches for "bing" (the Microsoft search engine) and "iPhone 4s" (a direct competitor to Google's Android smartphones) do not have knowledge graphs displayed alongside the results. The search term "office" does have a knowledge graph, but it's all about NBC's comedy show. There's no mention of Microsoft's hugely popular Office software in sight, except in ads paid for by Microsoft.
Google touts the ability of Knowledge Graph to help you search for people, places and things. But other terms that don't have associated knowledge graphs include "amazon", "facebook founder", "jesus christ", "nascar", "obama care", and "ralph kramden".
I doubt that this indicates any bias or conspiracy. Right now, the Knowledge Graph is still under development, and results will satisfy only the sketchiest curiosity. Most users will click through to original-content sites to find more in-depth information. But where will Google draw the line between being a directory service and a content producer?
And if they're heading in the latter direction, to what end? Google wants people to click on ads. If searchers visit a content site, and click on a Google ad, Google has to share a slice of the revenue with the content producer. If searchers click ads on a Google-owned page, of course Google gets the whole pie. But in all the Knowledge Graph examples I've seen, there are less ads on the page, and none within the Google-supplied facts and figures.
If people are finding answers on Google, pasting them into their word processor, and leaving without clicking any ads, Google loses. And if content sites die off due to lack of traffic and/or revenue, everyone loses.
There is an implicit contract between Google and the sites it indexes. The sites give Google permission to index their content (and even display snippets of it in search results). Any site may deny such permission by including a "do not index" tag in its HTML. Most sites are happy to be indexed by Google in exchange for visitors that Google sends to them via search. But is Google's Knowledge Graph breaking the compact with content producers, by cutting them out of the loop?
Your thoughts are welcome on this topic. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 24 May 2012
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Is Google's Knowledge Graph Good or Evil? (Posted: 24 May 2012)
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