Thursday, June 4, 2009

Google Squared is Live: Who Knew Structured Data Could Be So Unhelpful?

Three weeks ago Google demonstrated a new product in Labs called Google Squared; it's a search engine that creates structured data from big piles of information and lets users compare various things by their attributes. There have been suggestions that Google Squared will crush Wolfram Alpha. Well, Google Squared went live today and while it's a great idea, in reality the service doesn't look very useful. It doesn't look like it's going to crush anyone.

The user interface is inflexible, the data is odd looking and it's hard to imagine using Squared regularly. It's a great idea but we'll see where it goes.

Check out this example below, a Square for the search "dog breeds." It's cool that you can add major or minor medical concerns to the list of columns, but the selection of examples is really strange. The Labrador Retriever (surely the most common dog in this country) doesn't appear until you click through the #47 on the list and German Shepherds aren't in the top 50. Call it structured data if you like, I call it a surefire recipe for making a bad dog buying decision.

All the other queries we tried were similarly "almost helpful." The dog breed example is actually unusually good. Sorting by a particular column isn't possible, when I define a content type you don't get to see it unless I share it with you, and the user experience is an off mix of intriguing and maddening. The description fields would benefit from borrowing the first few lines of a Wikipedia article on a topic.

It is very impressive that when you request a square for a concept Google is unfamiliar with, you're prompted to offer up to five examples and then it goes out and builds the data set for you! Unfortunately, when I tried to explain to Squared who some examples of "tech bloggers" were it brought back a terrible picture of me and said that CNet's Caroline McCarthy is sixty four years old. I'm pretty sure that's not true.

We're as excited as anyone about the future of creating structured data from the sea of information online, but Google Squared isn't very inspiring so far. We've been looking forward to it since interviewing Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products and User Experience at Google, about Squared. When the day comes that you can slap a .xml or .csv to the end of one of these Squared URLs and pull out data programatically, that will be impressive.

Here's our review of Wolfram Alpha, which we said was likely to be a good service for engineers but not for anyone else. Hopefully it's still early days for all of these kinds of tools.


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