The Prodigal Aardvark

By Tom Peters |

Earlier this month, Google bought a small start-up company that provides a social search service called Aardvark (  that helps satisfy people’s information needs. 

Big deal, right? This happens all the time.  Large tech companies always are on the lookout for small companies doing innovative things that they can acquire.  Sometimes the big company wants the innovation, or its the talent pool, or it just wants to acquire and kill a threat to its business model.  It’s probably cheaper and more efficient overall to buy innovation rather than create it in-house. 

Librarians, however, may want to keep an eye on what happens to Aardvark in the Googleplex, because what Aardvark had created prior to its acquisition may point to a rich future for using Social Search to satisfy human information needs. 

We humans need information to survive, thrive, and develop.  Information needs constantly crop up.  Some are very time-sensitive, while others linger for hours, days, months, or even years before they are satisfied. 

It seems to me that initially there were two, then later three, basic sources of information to satisfy human information needs:  other people, the environment, and, later, documents. Before documents became part of the human endeavor, if you woke up in your cave and wanted to know what the weather was like outside, you either asked one of your family members or friends in the same cave who had gotten up earlier and reconnoitered to report back on weather conditions, or you got up, walked outside, and experienced the weather yourself.  In other words, other humans and the environment were the two primary sources of information that could satisfy your information needs.

Then documents came onto the scene:  cave paintings, scrolls, illuminated manuscripts, books, journals, websites, blogs, YouTube videos, etc.  Early on, we discovered that documents are another way to satisfy our information needs – not about current weather conditions, but more stable information like knowledge, culture and wisdom.

Because documents proved to be a good way to satisfy information needs, they proliferated, which in turn created the need for some way to search for and find information contained in documents.  This gave rise to libraries, library catalogs, full-text databases, web search engines, and reference services.  When the era of digital documents dawned and full-text indexing and web search engines arrived, the ability of documents to satisfy information needs took a quantum leap.  This type of search currently is called “web search” or “library search” but in this context the phrase "Document Search" may be better.  

Of course, humans and the environment are still valid ways to satisfy one’s information needs.  Over the millennia, however, Social Search and Enviro Search did not develop nearly as much as Document Search.  For example, although there currently are approximately 4.6 billion active cell phone subscriptions worldwide, if I want to find a few people who could satisfy an esoteric information need I have, I wouldn’t know which cell phone number to dial.  If I phoned a library reference service, in most instances I’d be switching over to a mediated Document Search.  There is no “full gray-matter index” to what we collectively know and remember.

Aardvark and other Social Search engines are trying to help Social Search catch up with and perhaps surpass Document Search as our “go to” source for satisfying our information needs.  (As an aside, it seems to me that Enviro Search engines – comprised, at least theoretically, of weather monitors, traffic cameras, seismic sensors, space satellites, etc. – still run a distant third to Document Search and Social Search and won't catch up any time soon.) 

It seems to me that library reference services traditionally have been focused on Document Search, although reference librarians have been known to refer people to other people who can help satisfy their information needs without resorting to documents.  As a librarian who has provided reference services at a desk, on the phone, in Second Life, and via SMS text messaging, I can’t remember a single time I used Enviro Search to satisfy anyone’s information needs. 

The reason I find Aardvark so interesting is that it may be the harbinger of a major interest in and adoption of reference services provided by libraries and other outlandish organizations to tap into the resurgent power of Social Search.   The Aardvark search algorithm takes your question, expressed in natural language, parses it, then matches it to only a few people who probably know the answer, based on their self-declared areas of expertise and how they have performed with previous answers supplied via Aardvark.  The entire transaction usually happens in less than 10 minutes. 

The story behind Google’s acquisition of Aardvark is a little more complicated than the timeless tale of big fish swallows little fish.  Most of the folks who originally started Aardvark left Google to do so.  I assume Google initiated these acquisition discussions, which puts an interesting twist on the story of the prodigal son.  These prodigal Aardvarks left Google penniless (for all intents and purposes), then returned to Father Google when he offered them $50 million to return to the fold with the cool tool they had invented while they were away tending pigs.  Imagine Fred MacMurray pleading on bended knee, “Hey, Chip, Ernie, and that Eldest One whose name I always forget, please come home!”