Search Engines and Self-Sabotaging Technologies

If you haven't checked out Marginalia Search and yet, you should. They are an interesting glimpse at not just what the Internet could have been, but at what the Internet is, in some ways, if you make your way past the swamp of content and get to the WWW.

Both are independent search engines, and both are very interesting in ways that go beyond them being cool toys for crawling enthusiasts.

I actually use Marginalia for some things, like looking up retrocomputing-related information, as SEO marketing has made Google all but useless in some niches now that retrogaming is a big thing. is younger, so many of the results it offers aren't exactly top-notch. That's not as bad as it sounds: it actually yields obscure pages that aren't easily found on other search engines. Those of you who are old enough may feel a slight tinge of deja-vu: there was a time, in Google's early days, when we used to do that as well: the links on the first results page of Google, the first results page of AltaVista, and the first results page of... AllTheWeb, I believe? taken together were more useful than the first three results page of any single search engine.

But is an interesting lesson in alternate history, too. It makes a bunch of interesting choices. For instance, search results are augmented with links to each page's RSS feed and mirror, if they're found. It downranks pages that use trackers or make heavy use of SEO features.

Twenty years ago, Google won the search engine race in part by making similar choices. It had a better crawling and ranking system — by far, and that was the primary reason why it was so good. But its sheer superiority was not the only reason why its technology won, or rather, not the only direct reason why it won. It won because it was immune to all the techniques webmasters used to "game" other search engines' ranking systems.

Unfortunately, this wouldn't last: Google's business model was basically selling customers access to the tools required to game its ranking system. The fact that both the ranking system and the way the tools worked were opaque and subject to frequent changes meant the cat-and-mouse game could be played for much longer than AltaVista or Yahoo could stretch theirs, but the eventual uselessness of Google's search results was inevitable.

Many of these options are things Google users would have appreciated, but Google could have never done it without jeopardising their own revenue model. They couldn't risk sending you (and your precious search habits) off-site to They couldn't risk losing the ability to track your news consumption by linking you to RSS feeds (and killed Google Reader when it stopped providing sufficiently useful information as content consumption habits began to change). They couldn't risk downranking content farms: you and everyone else may hate geeks4geeks, but they're the ones whose cash fuels every big cloud and ad vendor there is. It's websites like Stack Overflow, websites that are so useful they don't need to fight for links and a place in their target audiences' minds, that are counterproductive to fat cash bonuses for execs.

Some technologies — like search engines — are self-sabotaging. There is no way to make them as financially productive as they are while retaining the value they provide to their users. It's not that there is no other way to make them commercially viable. Subscription-based funding models have consistently failed but who knows, maybe we just haven't tried hard enough, or well enough — it's not like all ad-funded businesses worked, either. But such a model would be unlikely to be as generous a cash cow as Google's search-supported ad business was.

Projects like and Marginalia are just one of the ways in which the Net routes around jamming. Fear not, the Internet delivers!

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