Your Search Engine Doesn’t Love You Back

March 8, 2022 By Eric Olson
an animated character standing near an internet search bar

Search engines are one of the greatest modern technology innovations. They are an invaluable, totally flexible, completely free tool that every single person with an internet connection is familiar with.

Search engines are something out of a 1960s sci-fi flick: endless information conjured up from the ether and delivered instantly with the click of a button. They make boatloads of money for their operators while remaining free for their users.

Pretty freaking cool, right?

Short answer: yes, very cool. But like most things, there is always a price to pay when something appears to be too good to be true.

You may love your search engine, but your search engine doesn’t love you back.

If You Aren’t Paying for the Product, You Are the Product

Search engines and other social media platforms are free because of their advertisement-based business model.

Search engines drive remarkable levels of intimate engagement from their users. Because of this, they have such precise data on their users that the ad-space they sell can be targeted to a previously unthinkable degree, making them invaluable for bidding organizations.

Google didn’t show you that ad because it is recording your conversations; it showed you that ad because it already knew those things about you.

The implications of this are complex. But, one thing is almost certainly true: the search engines we use today do not optimize for delivering you factual information; they optimize for engagement.

More engagement means more data; more data means more valuable ad space to sell.

Take this quote from ​​Ex-Google exec and Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein:

“When you go to Google and type in “Climate change is,” you’re going to see different results depending on where you live… And that’s a function not of what the truth is about climate change, but about where you happen to be Googling from and the particular things Google knows about your interests.”

“Show Me the Incentives, and I Will Show You the Outcome”

This isn’t some back-channel conspiracy, and it’s not Google purposely misinforming you on certain topics. It’s simply a business, like every business before them, following their incentives.

Many big players in the tech world have publicly announced initiatives to try to clean up their platforms. After considerable pressure, Google even recently announced that they would restrict targeted advertisements for jobs, housing, and credit to reduce downstream redlining.

However, the same organizations who created these problems due to incentive pressure will never be the ones who begin to solve them if their incentives remain the same. The innovation will come from the outside.

The rise of companies like Neeva, an ad-free, user-curated, subscription search engine started by Ex-Google Execs, and DuckDuckGo, a completely private search engine that anonymizes all of its user data, points to the idea that premium, privacy-forward, subscription search will be a part of the future of tech.

As companies continue to improve the offering of premium search engines, while more people learn about the targeted-ad-filter that the information they consume passes through, the willingness to pay a small price to use a specialized, private product will increase.

How Consensus Fits

At Consensus, we believe that science is particularly ripe for innovation in the premium search space for a few key reasons:

First, unlike most domains, there actually is a “best” source of data that a search product can be pulling information from: peer-reviewed academic literature. This does not mean scientific research is perfect, far from it. But even critics would agree that the solution to problems within research is more experimentation, more analysis, and more eyeballs on the data, not less. All things an innovative search product can help deliver.

Secondly, scientific research is written in a uniquely structured way. This relatively uniform structure means that it is possible to develop machine learning systems that effectively “read” and analyze the papers for a user. This is precisely the type of value proposition that would need to exist for a product to be worth paying for.

Lastly, questions on scientific subjects only continue to grow in importance and popularity.

This can be observed on a small scale with personal health questions like the efficacy of the latest supplement craze or diet fad but also seen on a large scale with society-altering questions on subjects like COVID, climate change, or artificial intelligence.

If there is a single domain that needs a search product that prioritizes factual information, science is at the top of the list.

At Consensus, our goal is to provide better evidence-based answers faster and easier than ever before. We are striving to be one piece of the future landscape of premium, ad-free, subscription search products. This spring, we will be launching an AI-powered search engine that aggregates easy-to-understand scientific insights from peer-reviewed sources.

We hope you join us on this journey!

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