Google’s Got Plenty of Compute Cycles

by on August 3, 2008 · 36 comments

There are apparently people who believe that it’s some kind of technological Faux pas to type a website’s URL into the search bar. As Joe Weisenthal points out, this is completely nonsense. There are a number of good reasons to use the search bar even if you have a pretty good idea of a site’s URL.

Beyond the specific reasons Joe gives, there’s a more fundamental issue of cognitive economy. URLs have to be exact, and so remembering them takes a non-trivial amount of cognitive effort. If I want to remember the Institute for Humane Studies website, I have to remember that it’s theIHS, and that it’s a .org rather than a .com or a .net. But if I type “IHS” into Google, the Institute for Humane Studies is the third search term. If I type something a little more descriptive, like humane studies, it comes up as the first result. Search terms don’t have to be exact, and so they tend to be much easier to remember: type something in the general vicinity of what you’re looking for, and Google will find it for you.

The point isn’t that I couldn’t remember Rather, it’s that remembering the URLs of all the websites you visit is a waste of cognitive energy in exactly the same way that it would be a waste to remember IP addresses rather than domain names. Technically speaking, the IP address lookup would be faster, but the difference is so trivial that it’s swamped by the fact that the human brain isn’t as good at remembering 32-bit numbers as it is at remembering well-chosen domain names. By the same token, even if the search bar isn’t the “right” place to put URLs, it will, in practice and on average, be the quickest way for actual human beings to get to the sites they’re looking for.

This is an example of a general attitudinal problem that’s distressingly common among geeks. Geeks have an tendency to over-value lower-level layers of the technology stacks based on the misguided belief that higher-level technologies are unnecessarily wasteful. Many geeks’ preference for text over graphics, command lines over GUIs, text editors over word processors, and so forth seems to too often be motivated by this kind of false economy. (To be clear I’m not claiming that there aren’t good reasons for preferring command lines, text editors, etc, just that this particular reason is bogus.) What they miss is that human time and attention is almost always more scarce than the trivial amount of computing power they’re conserving by using the less complex technology. The 2 seconds it takes me to remember a website’s URL is worth a lot more than the tenth of a second that it takes Google to respond to a search query.

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