A well-known blogger tries to make a point but has trouble doing it without using misrepresentation.1
Here is the first paragraph from that Writer’s article:
The New York Times has an interview out with Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz where she declares that Yahoo has “never been a search company.” Astounding, in that that[sic] this is not true.
The Writer actually cuts off the quote, thus changing its meaning. We will analyze this in more detail later.
But still, our own reaction is: What difference does it make?
The Writer seems to begin with the same sentiment, saying: ‘Part of me thinks, “Why bother arguing?”’
And then, as bloggers generally do,2 he proceeds to argue nevertheless.
If argue was all he did, we would leave him alone.
In his argument, however, he commits some serious errors of reasoning, perhaps even deception, giving us the opportunity to find fault.
First, let’s briefly think about how you would go about making a reasoned argument that Bartz’s statement is true or false. We think it would take four steps.
- Keeping in mind the context, figure out what her statement means.
- Determine the truth.
- Decide whether the meaning you determined in Step 1 conflicts with the truth you determined in Step 2.
- And finally, conclude either that Bartz’s statement is true or it is false.
So far as we can tell, the Writer skips the first three steps and fast-forwards to Step 4.
We don’t demand that these steps be done in a specific order, or that they be labeled the way have labeled them. We do think, however, that you can’t omit the substantive thinking required by these steps.
We at Finding Fault will do the analysis that the Writer skipped.
We think that Bartz was saying that Yahoo’s focus has always been on things other than search. A company can do many things, but “being” a company that does something implies a focus on that thing.
For example, Microsoft has been selling the Microsoft Mouse3 for a quarter century,4 but we don’t think of Microsoft as being a mouse company. (OK, well, it’s possible that the Writer in question does—we don’t know. But most people don’t.)
Before we ask whether Yahoo’s focus was search, let’s digress a moment and look back at the glorious days, long past, of a project called Dmoz.5 It you look at the Wikipedia entry for this project,6 you will note that this project essentially comprised a hand-generated index containing a large number of URLs that grew in size parallel to Yahoo’s index and comparable to it in size.
Hold that thought for a minute—we will come back to it—and let’s now ask what “search” means.
When you look up a word in a dictionary, are you doing a search? You look at the guide words printed at the top of each page, and you end up finding a word after flipping pages just a few times.
Now you could call this a search, and computer science people will tell you that you did something similar to what they call “binary search”,7 but most people would call it looking it up in the dictionary, rather than searching for it in a dictionary. There is good reason for this. When you look something up, you have an idea where it will be found, and you know there is some rule for finding it. Dictionaries are in alphabetic order, so you know that a word beginning with “c” will be found after the “b” words and before the “d’ words. And you know that a word like “blogger” will come somewhere after words beginning with “ba” and somewhere before words beginning with “bo”. And so on. And that’s why we generally say that we look up a word in a dictionary rather than search for it.
Back now to Dmoz. It always was, and we assume still is, hand-generated. So this allowed you to look things up under categories and subcategories. But it’s quite hard to drill down through many categories to find the references one is looking for. To make things easier, Dmoz provided, and still does, a search feature. A visitor could simply enter some words into the search box, and almost instantly get a list of matching Dmoz entries.
And that’s how most people used it, so far as we can tell. As a search engine with its own hand-crafted search database.
But did that make Dmoz into a search engine? Let’s investigate a little.
Here is how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “search engine”: “: computer software used to search data (as text or a database) for specified information; also : a site on the World Wide Web that uses such software to locate key words in other sites.”8
There are two slightly different meanings here. First, a search engine searches data. Second, a search engine searches other sites.
The Random House Dictionary tells us that “search engine” means: “a computer program that searches documents, esp. on the World Wide Web, for a specified word or words and provides a list of documents in which they are found.”9
So again, we have two meanings. In the general case, the search engine just searches documents. In the specific case, it searches documents on the web.
Do you see a pattern here? There are two types of search engines: the first type that just searches somewhere, and the second type that searches places on the World Wide Web.
Going back to Dmoz, it’s pretty clear that Dmoz provided the first type of search engine, the type that searched Dmoz’s own data, but not the second type, the type that searches the web.
And this is why, if you do some web searches, you will find that Dmoz was always talked about as a directory, not as a search engine, even though for a period of time Dmoz’s index contained as many as three million URLs.10
So what have discovered so far in our analysis? Let’s summarize:
- Finding a word in a dictionary is called looking it up, not searching for it, because we have rules that tell us where we will find it.
- A search engine that searches a specific set of data isn’t the same thing as a search engine that searches the web.
There is an important third thing we should note, too. Take a look at Yahoo’s home pages through the years.11 Compare these pages with Google’s home pages.12 We also found a video that plays Google’s home page day by day.13 We have retrieved the respective home pages for Yahoo and Google from The Internet Archive14 for May 10, 2000, and we present them below as thumbnails linked to large images.
Take a look at both, Dear Reader, and tell us:
- Which one screams “Search!”?
- Which one yells “Some sort of weird kitchen-sink portal thing maybe you can also do search on it but I think they are like some type of directory where you can look things up and oh hey they’re also doing auctions and mail and shopping and stuff!”?
So now, let’s go back to our four-step recipe.
What did Bartz’s statement mean when she said that Yahoo had never been a search company? We think she meant that to the extent that Yahoo had done search, it had always concentrated more on searching its hand-crafted index, analogous to the Dmoz index, than on searching the web at large. Thus, “search engine” with more of the first meaning and less of the second. And we’re sure she was also referring to the hotch-potch of other non-search stuff that Yahoo has always featured on its home page.
What’s the truth? The truth appears to be that Yahoo at at times certainly tried to match Google, but it has never focused solely or even primarily on the type of search that Google does. When it has done a Google-like search of the web, it has often relied on outside companies to do some or most of the hard work. Its identity as a company always has been that of a catalog or directory, and a portal, not as simple search engine. In recent years, emphasis has shifted from the catalog or directory to the portal.
Does Bartz’s statement conflict with the truth? We don’t think it directly conflicts, but it does stretch it. Although Yahoo has never focused primarily on being a Google-like company with search as its identity Yahoo has certainly tried to chase Google’s search traffic.
So is Bartz’s statement false? We think not, but again, we think she’s trying to stretch the truth.
Does it really matter? We don’t think our conclusions matter very much. But in determining our conclusions, we did manage to find fault quite a bit—always a fun thing to do and our raison d’être—and we also found a few useful and entertaining things. We hope you enjoyed reading about them.
And oh, we almost forgot to mention this. Going back to the valiant Writer who is so indignant at Bartz. Our revisionist Writer does correctly quote Bartz as saying Yahoo has “never been a search company.” But here was the complete quote in the New York Times:
Ms. Bartz places Yahoo’s position in a rather different light. “We have never been a search company,” she said. “It is: ‘I am on Yahoo. I am going to do a search.’ ”
So she essentially said that Yahoo has indeed provided searches, but they were just one of the things that people did on Yahoo. And this matches closely with the images of Yahoo’s home page through the years that we pointed you to above.
But our Writer, in addition to disingenuously quoting half of the thought from Bartz, also proceeds to pretend (starting right at the beginning, in his inaccurate headline “Bartz Claims Yahoo Was Never A Search Engine”) that she really said that Yahoo was never a search engine. And then he repeatedly tries to prove that Yahoo was a search engine, largely ignoring Batz’s words search company. Typical blogger disingenuity.
So who is the greater revisionist here, Bartz or the blogger?
- Article “Revisionist History: Bartz Claims Yahoo Was Never A Search Engine” dated 2009-08-07 by Danny Sullivan http://searchengineland.com/revisionist-history-bartz-claims-yahoo-was-never-a-search-company-23725 visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- We understand of course, Dear Reader, if you are a blogger, that you are not one of those bloggers, and we greatly sympathize with your indignation that anybody should have mistaken you for one of them. ↩
- Web page at http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/mouseandkeyboard/ProductList.aspx?Type=Mouse visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- “1983. … Microsoft ships its first IBM PC mouse, retailing for $195.” Article “The computer mouse turns 40″ dated 2008-12-09 by Benj Edwards in online periodical “Macworld” http://www.macworld.com/article/137400/2008/12/mouse40.html visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- It still exists, though hardly anybody notices any more, at http://www.dmoz.org/ visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- Article “Open Directory Project” by unknown authors in online encyclopedia “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Directory_Project visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- Article “Binary search algorithm” by unknown authors in online encyclopedia “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_search_algorithm visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- Dictionary entry for “search engine” in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2009. edition) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/search%20engine visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- Dictionary entry for “search engine” derived from the Random House Dictionary as provided by Ask.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/search+engine visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- Article “The Life and Near Death of DMOZ” dated 2006-12-21 by Jim Hedger http://www.seo-news.com/archives/2006/dec/21.html visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- Article “Photos: Yahoo through the ages” dated 2006-05-16 by unknown authors http://news.cnet.co.uk/software/0,39029694,49272965,00.htm visited 2009-08-08. ↩
- Web page “Google 10th Birthday” on Google’s website http://www.google.com/tenthbirthday/#start visited 2009-08-07. ↩
- Video “Google homepage back” at Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vgprty39og visited 2009-08-08. ↩
- Website “The Internet Archive” at http://www.archive.org/ ↩