Is search really helpful?Finding out what Chancellor George Osborne says today in the Comprehensive Spending Review is easy – you can listen to it word by word on BBC Radio Five Live. Alternatively, you can log on to the Government’s own live streaming service, Parliament Live TV. Not only that, Sky, BBC News and loads of other broadcasters will be carrying the statement by the Chancellor as it happens. You can bet your last fiver in your own spending review that various bloggers will also carry their views live, reporting on the statement as it unfolds. You will not be short of options.

The chances are many people will not make a search on Google for “george osborne” or “comprehensive spending review”. That’s because ignificant numbers of people will arrive at a page detailing George’s speech via Facebook. Nowadays, Facebook is the second biggest source of traffic to websites after Google – and the gap is narrowing. Four years ago, Google largely had search all to itself. Nowadays, people are finding they can use social websites to pinpoint what they want much more accurately.

Take my own example. A while ago I was asked by two media studies students in Brighton to be interviewed as part of their final year project and dissertation. I was happy to be interviewed, but didn’t want to travel the two hours down to the South Coast and two hours back, at my own expense..! I was happy to meet them and talk to them about their subject, Internet addiction, but there is a limit as to how much time and money I was prepared to invest…! So I suggested we meet halfway, in Guildford. They were OK with that until I mentioned we could meet in the lounge of the Holiday Inn. It’s right on the A3, I said, or half a mile from the rail station. But they didn’t want to be “in public”. They needed a private room so they could video record me in a quiet area. But I wasn’t prepared to spend money on renting a room…!

So, I headed off to Google. I searched for things like “free room in Guildford”, or “free office in Guildford”. Clearly, I didn’t find what I was looking for. Half an hour later with various combinations of words and visits to an endless array of supposedly useful websites, I still had nothing. Oh bother, I thought. Or words to that effect…! So I went on to Twitter. “Anyone know of a free meeting room I could borrow near Guildford next Wednesday afternoon?”. Five minutes later, it was booked. I’d wasted over 30 minutes; if only I had gone to Twitter first, instead of Google..!

More and more people are making the same realisation that human search is better than computerised search. Social networks are frequently better at finding the right information because humans can more easily interpret our real questions, compared with some mathematical algorithm, which to be frank, is merely guessing.

This doesn’t mean that Google is unhelpful. After all, the Hitwise research shows that the current most searched for term on Google is – er – Facebook…! Some 6% of all searches are for “facebook” or some variation. This is presumably from people who are not aware of “facebook.com” as the address…! So Google does have its uses – it acts as a telephone directory, bringing to the top of the list the brand you already know about. But answering your questions? Try asking Google “what is the best social network for business“. It produces one result for you, an Ecademy discussion, which interesting though it is, does not really answer the question. The Hitwise data, however does. It points to the fact that Facebook is producing significant amounts of business leads and it is growing substantially. The best social network for business is Facebook – but Google is unable to answer that question for you.

A social network, Ecademy, went some way to answering that question and no doubt Twitter would help you come up with an answer, as would Facebook itself. But Google? Little use. True, it could answer the question, but you would need to use several different search phrases and probably waste 30 minutes or more. A quick question to a social network, get on with your work and then get the replies is so much more productive.

And this is to say nothing of specialist question and answer services, such as Yahoo Answers or Quora.

Perhaps it is time to rely less on search and focus more on using people to answer your questions. After all, they know the answers – a computer algorithm is only guessing. Do you want to base your business decisions on guesswork?

Let’s hope then, that George Osborne has based his decisions on asking people, rather than searches on Google..! Otherwise we could be in deeper doo-doo than we think…!

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