Spotlight vs. Google: Metaphor Smackdown

I just had a long, really interesting, fiesty conversation with a fellow systems geek (though, by his account, he is the geek and I am the nerd) about Spotlight, and partially about the Spotlight/Google metaphor that's floating around various sectors of the internet, and that's captured the minds and hearts of Mac and Google fans alike. You know: "Spotlight is like Google for your hard drive." (Okay, it's a simile, but whatever.)

My argument was that the comparison is inherently flawed. That searching your hard drive is fundamentally different than searching the internet. His argument was that they're the same, it's just the presentation that's different. Walking home I had time to consider the whole matter on my own, and I have to say, I may be starting to come around.

Basically, what I was saying was that when you're searching your hard drive, you're searching for files. And not just any files, but (usually) your own files. Files you created. Files you filed. Files you're fairly intimately familiar with. Whereas, when searching the internet, you're actually not searching for files at all. Your searching for content. And searching for content is different than searching for files. It's a fundamentally different way of approaching a search. On your hard drive you generally think to yourself, "I am looking for the file called 'smith' in my 'Documents' folder." On the internet you think, "I am looking for information about smith."

Now, when you search your hard drive using Spotlight, you are essentially searching the content of files (and, actually, a whole lot of other information about those files, but let's forget about that for the moment). So, in that respect, I will concede, it is quite a bit like doing a Google search. The main difference, or the crucial difference really, is, as my friend said, the presentation of the results. Google gives much more useful content-oriented information, in the form of those little, pertinent text passages at the bottom of each search result, than Spotlight does. Spotlight presents content-based search results the same way it presents file-based seach results, usually by kind primarily, and by name secondarily, but unfortunately never, ever by content. You can't even see the content of these content-based serch results without opening the file. If Google worked that way it would be worthless.

The heart of my original argument was that that's not how we're used to thinking about a local search, so it's inappropriate to discuss it that way. And therein lies my shortsightedness and my friend's and Apple's (and probably a lot of other folks') genius. Their contention is that we should think of local file searches differently, even if some of us don't quite get that yet. (I'm slow. I admit it.) And one useful way of thinking about local searches is the Google approach. I finally got this on my way home, when I began to think about what my friend had said about presentation. I started imaging local search results presented the way Google presents internet search results, and I got it. And I said to myself, "Yes. That would be awesome."

I do still have some problems with Spotlight, and I realize now that many of them revolve around that idea of presentation. I mean, it seems a bit narrow to be able to search by all sorts of criteria (name, kind, content, etc) and not really be able to organize the results by said criteria. Also, Spotlight always searches by all criteria. Wouldn't it be great if you could search by specific criteria only? Or combinations of criteria? And I guess you can, to some extent, with the standard "Find" command or with the weird boolean syntax in the Spotlight menu-bar. And that's great. But still, despite the fact that you can search by content, you can never display your results by content, and that's a problem, in my mind. Seems to me that when the Spotlight developers designed the Spotlight search-results interface, they were having the same problem making the conceptual leap that I was having. They missed the Google/content thing entirely.

But all the problems with Spotlight can, and probably will, be resolved when Spotlight becomes customizable. Which it will. It's a beast. A good and loyal beast, but a beast nonetheless, and it could use some reigns to really make it the incredibly useful thing it's bound to someday be. And I truly hope that some of that future customizability will revolve around the idea of search-results presentation. Because my friend was right. That's the key, or at least a big part of the key.

And you know? He's right about one other thing too: I am a nerd.

Shit. I hate that guy.