Sunday, August 24, 2014

SOS – The Plane's on Fire – No More News

Is Google getting sloppy? A short while back the question would have been unthinkable, but now it seems the answer might be yes. And the failures are coming from Google's core competency of search.


In order to listen to music without filling up the drives of my work laptop or my tablet, I have a lot of songs uploaded to Google Play Music. Google doesn't upload everything, they search what is already on their servers and match it to the music being uploaded. This saves space on the servers, and time for the uploader.

One of the songs I have uploaded is ABBA's SOS (which Wikipedia informs me "is the only Hot 100 single (or #1 single in Australia) in which both the title and the credited act are palindromes"). But a strange thing happened when I tried to listen to it in Google Play Music: it had changed language!

ABBA's version of the song is in English, but ABBA singer Agnetha Fältskog also released a Swedish version under her own name. It is (presumably) this version of the song that Google is serving, despite it not being the version I own. Unfortunately, Google are so (falsely) confident in their algorithms that there is no way of telling the system 'you got it wrong – this is not the right song'. 

Another part of Google's system is that you can re-download the music you have (allegedly) uploaded. This means I can now download Fältskog's version of SOS, courtesy of Google, without having to pay for it. While I have little interest in owning this particular song, there are bound to be other mis-matches in the system and Google could find it has accidently given away large quantities of music for free.

The Plane's on Fire

On the evening of Saturday 9th August, JetBlue flight B6 704 from San Juan to New York JFK suffered an engine fire whilst taxiing prior to take-off (apparently due to 'bird ingestion in the number one engine'). This led to the evacuation of the passengers via the emergency slides and the temporary closure of the main runway at San Juan. In other words, it was a pretty major event – and was picked up by many news outlets.

Google, however, completely missed it. It wasn't that Google search didn't find any news about it – it did. But Google search on mobile has recently introduced 'cards' that (claim to) give you the status of a flight you search for. You can simply say "OK Google JetBlue 704" and it not only gives you search results but tells you the current flight status.

But there's a problem – it's talking nonsense. While the plane was sat on the tarmac in San Juan surrounded by firefighters and news crews, Google was claiming it was in the air and would be arriving on time at JFK. Every other search result knew what had happened, but Google did not. It would appear that the flight status cards are simply linked to the schedules and do not reflect the actual status of the flights.

No More News

A couple of weeks back we had a press release on an enormous gas stream found with Arecibo. As usual, I used Google to monitor the coverage. However, I hit a problem – clicking on 'all N news sources' on the mobile search (both in the app and on the website) went to the mobile news front page, rather than the 'full coverage' page. Fortunately it was still working on the desktop version so I was able to request the desktop version of the website and search on that. (Oddly, the link for full coverage is called 'explore in depth' on desktop search.)

This problem has now been fixed, but it took over a week from the time I spotted it, and it had probably been present prior to that. For an absolutely core element of Google's business, this was an amazingly long failure and lead to me  trying Bing as an alternative. 

Bing geolocated that I was in Puerto Rico and refused to give me any results in English, even though I have English set as my language in my Microsoft account. No matter how badly Google fails, Microsoft is still able to make them look good!

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