Search Doesn’t Matter

I get a lot of books. I read very few — in part because time is an issue, in part because overzealous publicists send me everything from cookbooks to “teach your pets how to do anything” books.

When I got Nicholas Carr’s new book, “The Big Switch,” I opened it and didn’t put it down until I finished. Maybe I wanted to see what the “IT Doesn’t Matter” guy had to say about search, or maybe it was the cover photo, bearing a striking resemblance to an Xbox 360 “on” button.

Whatever the case may be, search is an integral part of our lives. While we spend a great deal of time discussing optimization and marketing tactics here at Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Strategies, my mission with Searching For Meaning lies in providing broader perspective on the search world. Carr does an excellent job of detailing our connected world.


Carr is perhaps best known for the article, “IT Doesn’t Matter,” which he wrote for the Harvard Business Review in May 2003. His point: IT is necessary for a corporation’s success, but IT is not quite as powerful as these groups claim. Naturally, the point he was trying to make was lost on executives in the corporate IT world who made flaming Carr for his comments a hobby.

Chief executives from Microsoft to Intel and Hewlett Packard called his article “hogwash,” called him “dead wrong” and otherwise sought to denounce his methodology and message. Newsweek even dubbed him “the technology world’s Public Enemy No. 1.”

A few short years later, companies that provide tech services in the form of outsourced technology — in the fashion Carr described in his HBR article and later, his book — are flourishing. In short, plugging into information services from the Internet in the same way we plug into electricity has become the norm.

Inside the Pages

Carr has described a future in which computing becomes a cheap, universal commodity. The latest book expands upon his earlier phalanx of transformative thought by detailing how the computing world will continue to change. The same way cheap electricity changed the world, cheap connectivity will continue to transform our universe.

Using historical examples of human behavioral analysis like Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling‘s 1971 experiment and study of racial segregation, Carr outlines how society is becoming “unbundled.” People, as they say, are not necessarily racist, but they do like to be around others with a similar mindset.

Carr writes, “…the Internet erases the physical boundaries that separate us, allows the free exchange of information about the thoughts and lives of others, and provides an egalitarian forum in which all views can get an airing.”

I’d argue the short-term outreach of social platforms (heavily tied to searching and finding) has given the connected world’s population an inflated sense of self, but I’d agree with the long-term assessment Carr proposes.

Google on the Brain

If you want to sell a book, put Google in the title. If you want people to read your SEM (define) column, put Google in the teaser. We quickly learn this in the publishing business.

Carr’s analysis of long-term search behavior is particularly enlightening. Pulling people into a community, Carr suggests, is much easier online while segregation occurs much more quickly than it does in the real world.

Unbridled from physical constraints, the connected world is quickly exposed to new ideas and new experiences. Yet, by selecting search results that appeal to a specific human need, search engines often facilitate the segregated community idea.

Personalization, driven by Google and others in the search and online space, is fueling the drive for unique experiences. I’ve often said the study of human search behavior is an enlightening (and frightening) window into the human mind, but there’s a bit more to it in the long term.

In Context

Carr also brings to mind the future deafening silence of human search behavior with a reminder of Google’s latest audio fingerprinting technology that monitors ambient audio which can be used for personalization.

Google’s public goal of storing all user data (anonymized after 18 to 24 months) provides a window into the future of personalization. If the ambient noise (conversations, music, dog barking) in my house can be used to provide a custom experience (and custom advertisements), search becomes less and less relevant.

That is, in the short term search ads and search driven content will be more relevant. In the long term, we shouldn’t need to search at all. Content will be provided to us, based on what a search engine knows about us.

Now there’s a scary thought.

Naturally, I’d expect the title of this week’s Searching For Meaning to be taken out of context. At least, I’d hope that it can inspire forward thinking. At the risk of forming an Oprah-esque must-read list, Nicholas Carr’s latest book is certainly worth your time.

Editor’s note: Nicholas Carr will be delivering a keynote address at Search Engine Strategies, New York and London. Click here to read Greg Jarboe’s recent interview with Carr.

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