Search engine limitations

I have an iPod classic 120 gb with almost 14.000 songs on it and most of the time I use it in shuffle mode. A couple of months ago I wanted to listen to a specific album (Ritual from the White Lies) and it skipped all the songs on the album; it showed them one by one in the display but didn’t play them. Strange!

So I did what everyone does in a situation like this, I turned to the internet for a solution. And sure enough I found similar problems along with a range of possible solutions. I tried several of them but they didn’t work for me. As I had limited time I decided to listen to another instead. But in the months that followed I discovered three other albums with the same problem. And to add to the confusion there seemed to be nothing wrong with the songs itself; when I connected the iPod to the computer and played them in iTunes they played without a problem. They just didn’t play on the iPod itself. As it now affected more albums I intensified my search for a solution.

This was not as easy as it sounds because although it was a common problem, it occurred since 2007 and on different iPod models. So the first thing I did was limiting the search results by being as specific as possible (which opens up the risk of missing possible solutions described in more general terms). Then the second problem arose; as you would expect the skipping problem was in many cases posted on Apple specific forums. An everyone who has visited forums knows that they usually consist of a mix of real solutions, misinterpretations, useless remarks and endless diversions on the original subject. So you end up reading a lot of posts which in the end offer nothing useful. As the skipping problem was annoying but only affected a couple of songs out of the 14.000 I usually ended up searching for a short time and then giving up.

Last week I had some free time and motivation and decided to find the cause and hopefully a solution for the skipping problem once and for all. So once again a visited the forums, worked my way through them in search of possible solutions and once again I tried several of them: reset the iPod, delete the songs, add IDtags etcetera and non worked. In the end the only solution left seemed to be reformatting the Ipod and import all the music all over. As this would take a considerable amount of time it didn’t sound that appealing. So I was ready to give up when I found a solution which mentioned resampling the songs again as mp3’s. As the albums all were in mp3 format my first thought was to dismiss it, why resample a mp3 to a mp3? But then again I had nothing to lose. So I tried it with the first album, and it worked. And the same thing worked for the other three albums. Finally!

Happily listening to the once problematic albums I started to reflect on my search. Why was it so hard to find a working solution for such a narrowly defined problem? The first reason was the amount of different websites the problem was discussed on, this meant a lot of search results and a lot of pages to look at. The second reason was that most results offered more or less the same explanations and solutions sometimes even referring to each other or to a specific Apple page on the subject. The third reason was that a lot of forum discussions ended up in offering no working solution at all. So what I had done is ask my search engine (Google) a solution for a very specific problem and it gave me a heap of unstructured (for the purpose of finding the solution), redundant and useless information to search through.

Then I started thinking about what a real useful search engine should do:
1) Take into account the intention of my search. I want to find a solution to a very specific problem so leave out any results not relating to that problem or a solution to it.
2) Rank the results according to possible usefulness (in this case offer a working solution).
3) Don’t hide advanced search but make it a more prominent feature or allow extra filtering of the first result.
3) And best of all: don’t offer me a list of websites but give me a list of all possible solutions with an added reference to the webpages on which they were found.

The search engines we use are the result of a specific developments in internet history and the choices for specific business models along the way (e.g. use them as a vehicle for advertising). And although they are incredible powerful and sophisticated – and yes, often also very useful- this has limited their development. Given Google’s capabilities you can be sure they could make their search engine work more like the ideal one described above. So why don’t they just do it? The answer is simple; Google depends on advertising income and their search engine is based on and interwoven with advertising. Changing it would end their income. So every chance for you to built the next search engine (just don’t built in with income generation based on advertising in minde). More on search engines in future posts.

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