Face-off: Does Spotlight need better Web search?

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On Thursday Microsoft announced details of its Windows 8.1 update. Since Microsoft owns both operating systems and a search engine, it’s not surprising that one of the new features in Windows 8.1 is improved Web-search integration.

Microsoft search demo
Microsoft's sample Windows 8.1 search.

Unlike Microsoft and Google, Apple doesn't have its own search engine. And to date, search-engine integration in OS X and iOS has been pretty limited. If you search in Spotlight on an iOS device or a Mac, you’ll be offered the option of searching for the term you typed on your default search engine or in Wikipedia.

Microsoft, on the other hand, will be providing Windows users with an integrated set of search results featuring both the contents of the Windows PC in question as well as from the Internet:

In Windows 8.1, the Search charm will provide global search results powered by Bing in a rich, simple-to-read, aggregated view of many content sources (the Web, apps, files, SkyDrive, actions you can take) to provide the best “answer” for your query. We think this will really change the way you interact with the Web and with Windows making it quicker and easier to get things done.

Should Apple better integrate Internet search sources into Spotlight? There are strong cases both for and against the approach.

The case for

Our devices aren’t closed systems anymore. We have files scattered on our hard drives and in the cloud. We’ve got searchable databases on our devices and out on the Internet. When I want to find something, I might have an inkling about where it resides, but I might not. Shouldn’t the goal of Apple’s Spotlight interface be to let you find anything, anywhere?

Right now, Spotlight “integrates” data sources such as the dictionary, your default search engine, and Wikipedia—but that integration is limited to a shortcut that will take you to another app to perform a proper search.

But imagine if Spotlight displayed not only documents saved on your Mac or in iCloud that match your search query, but a dictionary definition, some basic information from Wikipedia, and even the top five image and text search results from Google? Wouldn’t that be more helpful?

Good user experience should take the burden off of users and put them on our technology. Why should users bear the cognitive burden of deciding where to go when they want to find information about something? The whole point of Spotlight is that it unifies search—inside documents, in email, in the Finder—in one place. It only makes sense to extend that to data sources that aren’t on your device.

Just as Apple has integrated data from all sorts of sources into its apps—Yahoo powering the iOS Weather app, WolframAlpha powering a lot of Siri—Apple could make deals with data providers and integrate their responses right into OS X and iOS. I suspect that both Microsoft and Google would be happy to integrate their search engines even more deeply into Apple’s products.

Speaking of Siri, this could be an opportunity for Apple to pull from a much wider range of data sources for that feature, too. Too many of Siri’s responses end up offering to punt to a Web search or to display a WolframAlpha search result that can’t be read aloud. If I ask Siri to define a word, shouldn’t it be able to look up that word on an online dictionary and speak the definition out loud?

Google is already making some strides when it comes to aggregating different online data, thanks to its Knowledge Graph feature. (Even if you don’t know what Knowledge Graph is, you’ve probably seen it—it’s the thing that displays images, graphs, and even data from Wikipedia right on your search results page.) When I type definition of nonplussed into Google, I don’t just get a list of links to online dictionaries—I get the definition of nonplussed at the very top of the page.

That’s helpful. And I’d love to see Apple’s take on integrating various data sources in a useful way.—Jason Snell

The case against

It’s easy to understand Microsoft’s thinking here: When you want answers, you want answers, and you don’t care about their source. But I’ve never minded Apple’s approach to handling searches on my Mac and iOS devices. For me, searching local data and searching the Web are two distinct activities, in two distinct contexts, and I almost never want to search both my Mac and the Internet at large at the same time.

If I use Spotlight to search for, say, “Weird Al” Yankovic, I want to find all the music, videos, photos, and documents on my Mac that are associated with the parodist. I don’t want to find out Al’s birthday (which I already know anyway), or his upcoming concert dates. If that’s the intel I’m after, I’d rather turn to Google or Bing.

While I appreciate that Spotlight on iOS includes an option to perform my search on Google or Wikipedia, I’ve probably availed myself of those options twice, ever. Because I think about my searches contextually, I use Spotlight to find apps and contacts and such, and I use Safari when I want to search the Web. (I don’t even use Spotlight to search for email or calendar entries; my instinct is always to go to the specific apps and use their search options instead.)

Now, though I don’t envy or lust after Microsoft’s search implementation in Windows 8.1, I do see two cases in which a similar approach makes sense. I appreciate the ability exhibited by Siri (and Google Now) to search across contexts, but those tools approach it in a very different way. I don’t say, “Search my iPhone and the Internet for ‘Skipper Dan’ by Al Yankovic.” Rather, I'd say, “Play Skipper Dan” or “Google Skipper Dan” or “When is Weird Al’s birthday?” as appropriate. Siri’s ability to know whether I’m talking about playing music or finding a note or searching the Web is excellent, but it’s really just time-shifting my own contextual selection a bit: Instead of my needing to first launch the correct app and then give an instruction or perform a search, Siri detects which action makes the most sense given my instruction. I like that for voice search.

And one other area where I concede that Spotlight needs to do more is with Documents in the Cloud. Save a document to iCloud, and it’s largely invisible to you if you forget which app you created it in. Spotlight should certainly incorporate your iCloud-stored documents in its search results.

Beyond that, though, leave my search boxes alone. I’ll turn to Google when I need to search everything, and I’d like my Mac and iPhone to just search themselves unless instructed otherwise.—Lex Friedman

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