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Just Google it: Evolution of ‘Search’ in information seeking

Monday September 24 2018

Google marks 20 years since its inception on SEPTEMBER 4, 1998.

Google marks 20 years since its inception on SEPTEMBER 4, 1998. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

NGARE KARIUKI
By NGARE KARIUKI
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An old story is told about a big ship whose engine had failed. The ship’s owners called in one expert after another, but none of them knew how to fix the engine.

Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a teenager. The old man lugged a large and worn leather bag of tools with him. He arrived and immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.

The ship’s owners stood there, tracking the old man’s movements, doubting he knew what he was doing. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something in the engine.

Instantly, the engine lurched to life. He carefully put his hammer away, tipped his hat at the ship owners and walked away. A week later, the ship owners received a bill from the old man for one million shillings.

“What?!” the owners exclaimed. “It’s ridiculous! He hardly did anything!” So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemised bill.”

The man sent a bill that read:

Tapping with a hammer — Sh200

Knowing where to tap — Sh999800

***

This light-hearted story evokes knowing chuckles from many of us. We’ve all been there. The car just turned off in the middle of the highway and now it won’t start. In fact, the entire dashboard has gone dead and you can’t even operate the radio.

Now you have to call a towing company and pay through your teeth to get the car to the repair shop, only for the mechanic to tap somewhere under the hood and charge you Sh5,000 (it turns out one of your battery terminals was loose, but of course the mechanic won’t tell you that).

JUST GOOGLE IT

Then we discovered Google, and our lives have never been the same. We now know where to tap. Instead of phoning it in, we just Google it.

Whether you’re worried about the rash on your thigh; you’re unsure about when to use who and whom in a sentence; or you just want to show off to friends your knowledge of world facts, just Google it.

At least that’s what Margaret Githae does with questions she feels are too embarrassing to ask even her closest friends.

“There are some things I am curious about but feel are too personal or too embarrassing to ask anyone else,” says the MSc student in Strategic Communication at Lund University, Sweden, predictably choosing not to give any examples.

TOP 10 SEARCHES

A casual scan through some of the top trending searches in Kenya over the past recent months confirms Margaret’s sentiments. For instance, one of the top 10 most searched items by Kenyans last August was “How to join Illuminati in Kenya for free,” clearly something few people would go public about.

Kenyans have also gained global reputation for being very vocal online, especially on social media platforms. But rarely will you find us asking for the definition of terms or explanations of phenomena that we are otherwise heatedly discussing.

Instead of facing the embarrassment of admitting ignorance about key topics of national interest, Google search trends reveal that thousands of Kenyans Googled terms such as “riparian land”, “devolution”, “promulgation” and “the lunar eclipse” in the periods that those topics headlined the news cycle. More specifically, the searches centred on the definitions of those terms.

INDISPENSABLE

Kelvin Macharia, who is training to be a Pastor, says Google Search has become an indispensable resource when he needs to locate that elusive Bible verse or passage.

“All I need to do is type in a few words from the verse that I can remember and search,” he quips.

While it is debatable whether Google and other go-to knowledge-bases such as Wikipedia and Investopedia have made the world smarter or more knowledgeable, what is more certain is that far fewer of us now see the need to risk exposing their ignorance in public discourse when you can simply “Google it.”

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Before search engines and the world wide web, students had to spend hours in libraries scouring through volumes of old books just to locate a paragraph or passage that was key to their assignments.

Now, a few strokes on a keyboard and the relevant quote surfaces in less than a second. While this may be an answered prayer for college students (and increasingly, high school and primary school students), it has proven to be both a curse and a blessing for their teachers.

Melody Njuguna uses Google to stay one step ahead of her resourceful students. She teaches Construction Management at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and, like many tutors, grading assignments is one of those arduous tasks that are a necessary part of the teaching package.

However, Ms Njuguna has also picked up on a common pattern among her students — plagiarism. Some students who are too lazy to do their research and rephrase their ideas often resort to simply copying and pasting information from various websites online.

Ms Njuguna has been doing her best to keep up with the tricks, but the students have always found more creative ways to pass plagiarised work as their own.

“Anti-plagiarism software is quite expensive for many teachers. So being a search nerd, I am able to employ the different search hacks to detect students’ foul play,” she says.

EVOLUTION OF A QUEST

Search has evolved from merely a plain hallway lined with doors to websites where your answer lies. You can now find the answers to most of the questions you are looking for without ever having to leave the Search results page.

For instance, if you’re looking for information related to your career, education or health, Search now provides quick access to tools and reliable resources to help you make informed decisions.
Kenyans can now search for jobs right on Google without having to memorise any job listing sites. You can also set up alerts for jobs in your field of interest and geographical location.

Kenneth Murage fondly recalls impressing his friends in high school with his ability to get the lyrics to the latest hit songs.

“Back then, getting lyrics to your favourite songs was quite a task. I remember the Sunday Nation would only publish the lyrics to one song, and that’s weekly. However, on Google Search, I had access to millions of lyrics to my favourite songs,” he reminisces.

ONE STOP SHOP

Murage has also noticed how his search experience has evolved over the years as Google innovated to make the engine more intuitive and user friendly, eliminating the need of clicking though more links to get to the information sought.

“Previously, when you searched for a song, you would only get the links to the websites with the lyrics. However, today you get the full lyrics without having to click out of the Search platform. The full lyrics are displayed on the results page along with You Tube videos to the song and recommendations of similar music,” he adds.

Other innovations include the Translate function integrated into search, currency conversion, and airline flight tracking among others. For the more tech savvy users, you can track the origin of an image simply by uploading it onto the platform.

Google Kenya Country Manager Charles Murito.

Google Kenya Country Manager Charles Murito. PHOTO | FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

Also, using the “advanced search” options, you could draw up query results from within specific websites without having to log into those sites, or simply set up the search tool so that it brings up only files with specific file types (such as PDF or excel file).

Dan Gaiku, a Nairobi-based technology consultant, describes Google Search in one word: life. He highlights how integral Search has been in all aspects of his life.

“I learn and work through Google Search. In college, I stopped borrowing library books as I could use Google Scholar to gain access to similar material. At work, I keep track of my competition via Google Search. In life, I crowd-source all the information I need from figuring out car noises to coding,” he says.

AHEAD OF INNOVATION CURVE

The exact date of Google’s founding in 1998 is up for debate, even for a company whose core business is providing answers. Google Inc. was incorporated on September 4, but for more than a decade they have celebrated their birthday on September 27.

Charles Murito, the Country Manager for Google Kenya, says that what has kept the company relevant and on the cusp of technological innovation is their unwavering commitment to the founding mission.

“A lot may have changed in the last 20 years, but what hasn’t changed is our mission: To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Walk into any Google office around the world and you're bound to find people debating an ambitious idea that might sound crazy — but also might become the next Android or Maps.”

By the time Google came onto the scene in the mid-90s, several Search engines were already key players in this new space — Yahoo, Alta Vista, Ask, Lycos. In fact, critics at the time said Google was late to the party.

But as a popular Swahili saying goes “kutangulia sio kufika” (you may Google the English translation). Google Search may not boast of being the pioneer in the industry, just as Facebook cannot boast of being the first online social media platform, yet a series of strategic, innovative and sometimes risky decisions saw the two companies become the industry mammoths that they are today.

Mr Murito adds: “We're still pushing the boundaries of available technologies, particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI). And we're still dedicated first and foremost to the user — to building products for everyone. To providing people the information they need, wherever they are — whether it’s to help them start a business, learn something new, or connect with each other.”

Twenty years later, the world has changed, online and off. Answers — and high-resolution photos, car rides, commerce, and messages from friends and family — are all on our phones, at our fingertips

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

With the global economy becoming more information-based, many companies are realising that what’s crucial is not the possession of certain skills but a demonstrable capacity to acquire more skills with evolving industry needs.

The advancement of AI and the incorporation of voice search are just some of the latest tricks to beat the system and stay ahead of the innovation curve. With voice search, you don’t even need to know how to spell the word you are looking for.

While still in relative infancy, digital household assistants (Amazon Echo, Google Home) are going to spearhead this AI movement even further. In fact, Google is already reporting that 20 per cent of searches via its mobile app and Android devices are now voice queries.

Google has changed, too, over the last 20 years. Starting with Search, the founding company is now a subsidiary of a much younger parent — Alphabet Inc, with siblings in the form of products that are used by more than a billion people every month.

UNCONVENTIONAL

Created in 2015, Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of the main Internet products contained in Alphabet instead.

Alphabet's portfolio encompasses several industries, including technology, life sciences, investment capital, and research. Some of its subsidiaries include Google, Calico, Chronicle, GV, CapitalG, Verily, Waymo, X, and Loon (which recently announced it partnership with Telkom Kenya to bring balloon powered Internet to Kenya in 2019) among others.

As Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin said in their original founding letter: “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one … Expect us to make smaller bets in areas that might seem very speculative or even strange when compared to our current businesses.”

***

Top trending how searches, 2010-2012:

  1. how to write a report
  2. how to write a cv
  3. how to write a business plan
  4. how to make money online
  5. how to kiss a guy
  6. how to become rich
  7. how to create a blog
  8. how to get rich
  9. how to download music
  10. how to create a website

Top trending why searches, 2010-2012:

  1. why men cheat
  2. why does love hurt
  3. why do men cheat?
  4. why women cheat
  5. why do men cheat on their wives
  6. why women cry
  7. why does leap year have 366 days
  8. why people use drugs
  9. reasons why I love you
  10. why men love bitches

Top trending why questions, 2013-15:

  1. why men cheat
  2. why women cheat
  3. why does love hurt
  4. why women cry
  5. why do men cheat?
  6. why does leap year have 366 days
  7. reasons why I love you
  8. why women are better than men
  9. why me lord
  10. why do men cheat

Top trending how questions 2013-2015:

  1. how to write a report
  2. how to write a cv
  3. how to invest
  4. how to prepare for an interview
  5. gmail sign in
  6. how to kiss a guy
  7. how to become rich
  8. how to get rich
  9. how to create a blog
  10. how to create a website

Top trending how questions 2015 — present:

  1. how to play lotto
  2. how to pay gotv
  3. how to download music
  4. how to get away with a murderer
  5. how to pay gotv via mpesa
  6. how to cook omena
  7. how to bake a cake
  8. how to cook spaghetti
  9. how to pay kplc bill via mpesa
  10. how to marinate chicken

Top trending how questions 2015 — present:

  1. why does love hurt
  2. why do you want this job
  3. why a students work for c students
  4. why a students work for c students PDF
  5. why not me lyrics
  6. Facebook log in
  7. why me lord

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