In February, the software engineer and blogger Dmitri Brereton wrote an essay titled "Google Search Is Dying" for his personal website. His two main arguments are that Google's advertising is messy and dominates the results page, while the actual search results are mostly junk sites that have been reverse-engineered to rank highly.
If you have never searched for something on Google and felt deeply dissatisfied by what it showed you, Brereton essentially argues, you are living in the Matrix. "What you don't realize is that you've been self-censoring yourself from searching most of the things you would have wanted to search," he writes. "You already know subconsciously that Google isn't going to return a good result."
I was living in the Matrix. Then, two days into my 5-month-old's ear infection, I got search-pilled.
We had taken him to a doctor, but no one told us what we should do if our baby's ears hurt so badly that he wouldn't eat. When we called the pediatrician's office following a daylong hunger strike, the nurse told us that if we couldn't get him to feed, he'd have to go to the emergency room.
Naturally, we turned to Google for a second opinion.
My first search query was "baby with ear infection won't eat," all in quotation marks. Google returned zero links to actual web pages, along with three ads, one of which invited me to "Browse Baby Ear Infection Pictures."
Without the quotation marks, the same search query returned what looked like the full buffet: a better class of ads up top, followed by links to pediatric and general health websites. But on closer examination, the results did not feel like what Brereton described to The New Yorker as "the authentic Web." Every link took me to a nearly identical hospital website or healthy living site, and they all said pretty much the same thing: "These are the symptoms of an ear infection. If you think your child has one, call a doctor."
Per Brereton's essay, there is a third and correct way to find answers for very specific questions: add the word Reddit to the end of your Google query. When I finally did that, just minutes before we were set to pack our screaming baby into a car seat and head for the hospital, the very first search result, from r/beyondthebump, was: "Tip for when baby has infection and won't eat or drink!" The second link took me to a post titled "2 yr old has stopped eating after starting antibiotics for an ear infection," from r/Parenting. These were not ads or reverse-engineered copypasta, but real humans sharing information with other real humans about my exact problem.
It took us only a few minutes to find the advice that unlocked our son's appetite. A Reddit user in England shared a tip from a nurse who told her to give the baby something salty to gnaw on and then wait for his thirst to get the better of his discomfort. This trick worked for us (we used Bamba), and no E.R. visit was necessary.
Brereton argues that the effectiveness of the Google-Reddit combo is damning for both platforms, since Reddit's own search function also doesn't work well alone. Most of the follow-up commentaries he inspired agree that the top layer of the internet is over-monetized, over-optimized junk. But for me, the Reddit hack was a reminder that getting the best information when we need it has always been a challenge and likely always will be.
"The best way of utilizing knowledge initially dispersed among all the people is at least one of the main problems of economic policy," F.A. Hayek wrote in "The Use of Knowledge in Society," published in The American Economic Review in 1945. "The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form." Hayek was arguing against central economic planning, but that bit of wisdom also applies to firms and individuals. Most problems boil down to a knowledge problem.
Although it is almost certainly doing a better job than search.gov could, not even Google is capable of delivering "all the knowledge which ought to be used but which is initially dispersed among many different individuals." But it might get close if you add Reddit to your search query.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Internet Search Is Better Than Ever If You know How to Use It".