It Doesn't Matter What You Search For, What Matters Is Who Ranks The Results

by Matthew Russell

Related link: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=failure



Let's do an experiment. Go out to Google, type "failure" into the search box, make a prediction about what the top hit should be, and then choose "I'm feeling lucky."

Ok, maybe you’re outraged or maybe you’re happy based upon what you just saw. But did you notice that the site that came up was the official site and that the word "failure" didn't appear anywhere in the source or metadata of the document? For historical purposes, here is what you get at the time of this post.

Now, believe me, I know that it can be (and is often) the case that accurately organized page rankings need not have the actual search text contained anywhere in them -- consider an image search for example -- but it really begs the question of how influential search engines can/could be/have been in shaping public opinion. Think about it. How many times do you use a search engine each day? How much of your research do you base on the first page or so of hits? Do you implicitly assume that information you get in the first page of hits is non-partisan or accurate? Does this shape your thinking in any way? Just some things to consider as you go about your searching.

A very powerful man once said, "It doesn't matter who votes, what matters is who counts the votes." In another context, he might have said, "It doesn’t matter what you search for, what matters is who ranks the results." I'm not trying to assert that Google or any other search engine has any particular political agenda or that there's any conspiracy at all behind page rankings, but sometimes you really do have to wonder how pages get racked and stacked and whether or not such organizations could/would use their highly influential power as a political arm -- especially during tumultuous political times. Ever considered the effects of geo-targeting swing states during an election? How much money would it take to buy that "service?" Again, it's just something to consider.

But let's face it, everyone does have an agenda, and there's really no such thing as being completely unbiased or non-partisan. Bias is inevitable. The questions then become if/when an agenda shapes policy, whether or not we're savvy enough to recognize it, and what we could/should do about it.

Is it fair to consider search engines part of the mainstream media?


7 Comments

hayne
2005-11-03 09:20:49
PageRank and googlebombing
You should have mentioned why this happens - it is a consequence of "googlebombing" as is explained in the note from Google (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2005/09/googlebombing-failure.html) that is linked in the Sponsored Links section.


Failure to mention this makes it seems that you are implying a political slant in spite of your disclaimers.

ptwobrussell
2005-11-03 10:12:40
PageRank and googlebombing
Wow. Talk about rubber hitting the road (http://www.macdevcenter.com/pub/wlg/8314) -- now that is how desensitized I am to ads in the margin. Honestly, I didn't see that, but it wouldn't have made much of a difference if I had. And besides, that's the beauty of you being able to talk back to these posts.


Google bombing or not, the questions stay the same: Are search engines pervaisive enough to be considered part of the mainstream media? And as such, can we expect them to carry some real political clout by geo-targeting whether it be by Google bombing or internal corruption?


Be clear though, I'm not interested in bashing Google -- not yet anyway -- this is simply a thought experiment.

davidkurtz
2005-11-03 14:09:22
Understanding Context is important
As the previous posters have implied, "agenda" isn't at issue so much as methodology. Google search results do not happen by magic or editorial fiat; it is, in essence, a sophisticated polling algorithm. Google may be a little coy about how this works, and their interest certainly is in preserving the illusion of magic, but it's not and it shouldn't be a secret. Like any other set of rules, it can be gamed and manipulated, but that manipulation has to happen on a popular level, not merely an individual one. The results are interesting from a sociological perspective as well as a practical one.


So if you're truly looking for failure, Google may just be providing the most relevant example after all.

ptwobrussell
2005-11-03 14:24:59
Understanding Context is important
their interest certainly is in preserving the illusion of magic, but it's not and it shouldn't be a secret


Well said, and you've honed in on one of my underlying themes: I think it's scary to place so much trust in something that we don't (and may not ever) understand. While I understand the need for proprietary secrecy and all, but I'd still hate to think that so many people trust any single search engine so much as it appears that we do...even if it is a great one.


It's like only seeing what a single news source has to say about any given issue -- just not a good idea if you want the whole story.

hayne
2005-11-03 15:03:31
PageRank and googlebombing
Honestly, I didn't see that, but it wouldn't have made much of a difference if I had


Well, I pointed out that link since it was there, but actually I would have expected anyone who was writing about search engines in general, or Google in particular, to have done enough research so that they are familiar with the situation. Googlebombing is not new - it has been well known for many years.
See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_bomb

ptwobrussell
2005-11-03 22:26:35
PageRank and googlebombing
Don't get me wrong, I really do appreciate your input and for you pointing out the google bombing thing -- but again, that wasn't really the point I was trying to narrow in on. I was trying to get at the notion of search engines becoming mainstream media and the impacts this might have on the undiscerning searcher's life.
ptwobrussell
2005-11-04 19:11:04
Google's FAQ about manipulating search results
It's nice that they post an official statement that they don't manipulate their search results, but the question of "how can we be sure?" still remains (and would any company ever post a page that says "by the way, we manipulate results from time to time")


http://www.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=4115