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TheStreet Open House

The Digital Skeptic: The Dumb Reason the Web Doesn't Make Money

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- You made it to 2013, so you deserve to know a secret about the Web.

"Dumb algos are what work," Joseph Turian told me over cocktails on a rainy night here in New York last fall. (That's not the whole secret. You'll have to read on.)

Turian knows his way around the Big Data ordnance. He got a doctorate in computer science from NYU after an undergrad stint at Harvard. And he runs a gun-for-hire data analysis outfit called MetaOptimize.

Here's his drop on dumb algorithms: Complex computer programs that manage nasty so-called Big Data problems, including recognizing speech or buying and selling stock, can be mighty impressive. But it turns out, what really rocks the information house when it comes to brutally tough, data-heavy computer problems is programming simplicity to the point of stupidity. There's a catch, though.

"You need access to massive amounts of data to make these dumb algos work," he said.

Take Google Translate, the search giant's marvelously effective online translation app. Apparently, programs such as this tend to stay away from complex computer models that account for linguistic nuance such as object-oriented grammar or deep syntax. Rather, they tend to rely on basic concepts such as the simple probability that a set of words will appear in a given order. Then these not-so-smart algos do little more than rank and compare the number of times such multiword phrases occur in a language to quickly translate one equivalently ranked word set to another.

"It's not exactly that simple, but it is not that far from it," Turian said. "The important thing is, have as much text as possible. And what Google probably does is grab every written word from all the websites on Earth to make Translate work."

Turian is not out on an algo limb here. I confirmed the "dumb algos work" sentiment with pretty much every data nerd I could get my hands on.

That includes Michael Selik, a New York economist and software engineer; my big data buddy Brian Dalessandro, vice president of data science for Media6Degrees, the New York advertising data shop; and most interestingly, Dennis Mortensen, who helped developed Yahoo!'s (YHOO) big data apps and now runs a New York media data analysis firm called Visual Revenue.

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