Saturday, September 19, 2009

Is Dex Online Turning Into Crap?

(First of all, my apologies to those who are offended by my use of the word "crap." I figured it was better than some of the alternatives, and I used it deliberately because it comes closest to what I'm trying to say.)

Most of my American and Canadian readers will remember the Yellow Pages, the part of the phone book that came after the alphabetical listings in the (non-capitalized) white pages. The Yellow Pages were a listing, arranged alphabetically by category, of businesses and services. The Yellow Pages were a great source of income for the telephone company and, in later years, for the independent publishers of telephone directories.

(The term "Yellow Pages" should be capitalized and marked with an (R) symbol, because it is a registered trademark of somebody. Let's pretend it is, in this posting. There, that ought to keep the corporate lawyers off my back.)

In recent years, the Yellow Pages went online. Both the paper and electronic versions changed their names to "Dex." The electronic version was known as "Dex Online," and then as "Dex Knows."

For a long time, Dex Online / Dex Knows was really useful. But this morning I became concerned that "Dex Knows" is being replaced by "Dex Blows." Let me illustrate by example:

I needed to find an address for Frontline Medical Laboratory in our town. I went to Dex Knows and typed in "Frontline Medical." Dex couldn't find it, told me so, and suggested some alternative search terms. That's good programming. I would expect a human being to do the same thing for me.

So I tried "Frontline Lab" instead. This one got results, all right: five advertisements from companies with the word "frontline" or the word "lab" in either the name of the company, their one-line advertising text, or their website URL.

In fact, that's all the information that was given on each company: the name, the spiel, and the URL. That's not what I wanted. I go to Dex Online to look up the address and phone number of a business, not this other crap. In fact, if what I need is an address or phone number, all this other information is useless crap.

I must be fair, and not overreact here. This behavior may be a simple aberration.

I decided to test it further. I entered the name of my favorite local auto body shop, and Dex gave me a name, address, phone number and map. Then I entered "Auto Body and Paint," and Dex gave me a listing of body shops, with phone number and address.

I entered "Old Cars," and Dex gave me a listing of auto shops that work on "antique vehicles." (Yeah, I guess a '67 Mustang is an antique. I still miss that car.)

So far, so good.

There used to be a wholesale beef outlet around here, so I searched for it using the term "meatmasters." Whoops - Dex served up the lousy, useless advertising again. Then I broke the term into two words, "meat masters." That worked: Dex didn't find "Meat Masters," but it did offer me a selection of delis and wholesale outlets.

I decided to try "Frontline Medical" again. This time, it didn't give me the friendly "We can't find ..." screen. Instead, it gave me the useless crap. I got suspicious. It had worked before; why not now? I clicked the "Search" button several times, to see what would happen. Sometimes Dex would come back with the "We can't find ..." screen, but often it would come back with the advertising junk. Moreover, the advertising junk changed every time I clicked "Search."

So it's not an aberration. Dex is programmed to be helpful to the consumer some of the time, and to be helpful to the advertiser all of the time.

Now, I'm not naïve. Dex makes their money by selling advertising; that's how they can afford to offer this service for free to customers like me. I understand that. I have a high opinion of the programming that makes Dex work so well -- except for this crappy "default to advertising and URL" branch. I think it's a mistake, and it makes Dex much less useful to me.

In fact, I ended up finding the address and phone number for Frontline Medical Lab by leaving Dex and going to Google instead.


Ash Nallawalla said...

DexKnows could fix a few things, but writing them off as crap is premature.

"Frontline Medical Laboratory" in quotes is not in Google other than this blog post, and the various "Frontline Medical" results seen in Google are for everything but a "laboratory". Which business did you associate with your search?

Zyzmog said...

With Dex, the search window includes two fields: the name or category of the business, and the city.

Looking for "Frontline Medical Laboratory" on Google does indeed produce the results @Ash mentioned. Looking for "Frontline Medical Laboratory Insert_Your_City_Here" narrows the search considerably, and shows the local (medical) laboratories that are part of the Frontline Laboratory Network. Those are the businesses I was looking for.

(Actually, I was surprised to find more than one lab in the area associated with Frontline, but that's okay.)

Perhaps "writing them off as crap" is premature. But Dex used to work fine. I fear that Dex is following in the footsteps of,,, and other websites that "worked fine" until -- well, until they didn't. They got too commercial, or too cluttered, or too clever.

Again, I know that these websites get their revenue from advertising and underwriting, and them what pays the piper calls the tune. It's just unfortunate to see a website like Dex "improved" to the point that it starts becoming less useful.

Zyzmog said...

Or, in the extreme, useless.