For experienced Internet users, the chronology of our era is divided into two ages: BG and AG, before and after Google. The year 1998 marks the dividing line. Before then, as the web expanded exponentially, a host of “search engines” had attempted to provide it with search indexes. The best of them was High view, which was launched in 1995 and provided the first searchable full-text web database through a simple interface. It was the engine that I and most of my colleagues used until one fateful day in 1998 when an even starker web page appeared with a simple text box and almost nothing but the name Google. And from the moment you first used it, there was no turning back.
Why? Because Google used an original way of ranking the relevance of the results returned by a query. It effectively did an automated peer review of the websites. The more web pages that are linked to a particular site, the more relevant it is and therefore it will be given a higher ranking. The algorithm, called page rankWhat did this was the foundation on which Google’s dominance of Internet search was built.
The reason Google blew it all away before its ranking system seemed objective: it only counted links and ranked them accordingly. It was playable, of course, and a mini-industry of search engine optimizers evolved to try to ensure that a Google search would rank highly for their clients’ pages. But Google users could at least be sure that the company itself was not favoring one result over another. There was no advertising involved.
The company’s founders insisted that favoring advertisers’ pages would undermine the integrity of their results. “We wait,” they wrote in 1998, “that ad-supported search engines will be inherently biased toward advertisers and away from the needs of consumers… we believe that the advertising issue causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic field.”
That’s how it is. But then, after burning investors’ money for two years, the founders discovered in 2000 that magnanimous objectivity doesn’t pay the rent, and they morphed into surveillance capitalists, monitoring its users to obtain information about them that would be of interest to advertisers. Between then and the company initial public offering in 2004Google’s revenue increased by nearly 4,000%.
For a long time, the intrusion of advertising considerations didn’t seem to bother users much, though it understandably irritated industry competitors and regulators, especially in the EU (to which Google has paid billions of euros in fines). Despite this, its position as the dominant search engine in much of the world has remained stable since, well, forever. That suggests the company must be doing something right, if only because, unlike, say, Facebook, genuine alternative search engines are readily available.
All of which makes the online buzz generated by a blog post by Dmitri Brereton, a software engineer at a San Francisco company, intriguing. Under the heading Google Search Is Dying, Brereton wrote: “If you’ve tried to search for a recipe or product review recently, I don’t need to tell you that Google’s search results have gone to shit. You will have already noticed that the first non-advertising results are SEO [search engine optimisation] optimized sites full of affiliate links and ads”.
He admits that Google still gives decent results for many other categories, “especially when it comes to factual information. You may think Google results are pretty good for you and you have no idea what I’m talking about. What you don’t realize is that you’ve been censoring yourself for looking for most of the things you wanted to look for. You already know subconsciously that Google is not going to give you a good result.”
This seemed a bit condescending to me, though it did get a chorus of approval on Reddit and Hacker News and even a piece New Yorker. The general tenor of the discussion was that only clueless idiots would do a simple Google search rather than the complex formulas available to those who know what they’re doing.
Since I don’t have a dog in this fight (I use very little Google and Duck Duck to win most of the time), my hunch is that this is the online equivalent of a storm in a cup of tea. On the occasions I do use Google, it’s usually for factual things, so my experience may be different from Reddit and Hacker News. It can be like the New Yorker suggests that the results that come from Google are a reflection of how good SEO optimizers are at gaming PageRank.
DuckDuckGo’s CEO (who, of course, has a dog in the fight) offers three other possible reasons for dissatisfaction with Google. One is users’ aversion to being tracked. Another is annoyance at the way Google prioritizes its own products in shopping-related search results. And the third? Just plain boring – we’ve been living in AG for so long that people are craving something different. If that’s what’s really bothering you, you need to remember that solutions are just a click away.
what i’ve been reading
Putin’s challenge to the American right is a great blast from Andrew Sullivan on his blog.
Pride before a fall
Peter Savodnik’s extraordinary essay The dawn of uncivilization examines post-1989 Western (and particularly American) arrogance.
In Preparing for defeatFrancis Fukuyama outlines (in the american purpose blog) why you think Vladimir Putin is destined to lose.