Google abandons Search

It’s hard to explain to people new to the web since 2004 – the Digg kids – the effect that Google had on the internet at the turn of the decade. They can’t conceive the Before and the After. Google was miraculous, and so much better than the competition that they effectively gave up trying to compete with it. But Google’s PageRank also unleashed social and political fads which reverberate right through to this day.

Much of the junk science of the web comes from Googlemania of this period. New institutes and venerable academic departments today all drink from the seemingly bottomless well. It permeates into Birtspeak 2.0, and you can see it in the Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down you see in Comments, for example. The mini-industry called “Social media marketing” wouldn’t really exist without it, either.

Google kindled the idea that the Web was a democracy, a great big voting machine. But only Google was uniquely qualified to divine these intentions – only Google had the capability and know-how to discern the ‘Hive Mind’. Google said so itself; its PR blurb explicitly made the connection between a New Form of Democracy and its own innovation, the “uniquely democratic nature of the web”.

For a couple of years, PageRank™ worked wonders. Then reality began to mess things up. What had worked well for conferring authority to peer-reviewed academic papers didn’t work quite so well in the wild. As Google grew, the importance of appearing in its rankings also grew. SEO and dirty tricks became big business. (See Meet the Jefferson of Web 2.0.)

This was first pointed out by your reporter in 2003, and it was manifest in two ways. Firstly, via the ease with which a small group of motivated people could hijack search terms, thanks to the dense interlinking nature of blogs. (A more perfect machine for rigging PageRank has yet to be invented). This was Googlewashing. And secondly, the ease with which spammers could clog the system with noise. The period also saw the migration of large amounts of information to the web in a searchable format. The real-time chatter from protocols that had previously been beyond the reach of search engines – such as AOL chatrooms – found its way into its Google. The result, by mid-2003, was a system that was broken.

You may recall that it was heresy at the time to doubt the quite magical technical ability of Google to get it ‘right’. The bandwagon of Web 2.0 had barely started to roll – it wasn’t christened until the following year – but there was already serious money on riding on it. But it was an even greater heresy to question the moral authority that the technology utopians had by then conferred on Google.

For Google wasn’t just ranking web pages, but adding to the human epistemological cannon – it was telling us what was wrong and right – filtered and legitimised through the people-powered Hive Mind. Thanks to the now-burdensome “Don’t Be Evil”, it constantly reminded us of its impeccable moral credentials.

Well, as you may have seen, PageRank™ is now dead. Google has given up on the job of ranking pages – it can’t cope any more – and outsourced the task of evaluating the job to the user. Needs must, and so it will make a virtue of the very feature that helped destroy the index – real-time noise. As Danny Sullivan points out, this is very big news indeed. I think it’s even bigger than Danny thinks it is – with an extra penthouse layer of bigness on top – for all the social and political implications mentioned above.

By outsourcing the ranking of pages to the hoi polloi, Google is saying that is no longer in the business of ‘arbitrating’ democracy. This is now the job of hordes of roaming single issue fanatics, voting pages up and down. You could say the internet has returned to its primordial soup.

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Google cranks up the Consensus Engine

Image from Google's 2006 analyst presentation

Google this week admitted that its staff will pick and choose what appears in its search results. It’s a historic statement – and nobody has yet grasped its significance.

Not so very long ago, Google disclaimed responsibility for its search results by explaining that these were chosen by a computer algorithm. The disclaimer lives on at Google News, where we are assured that:

The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.

A few years ago, Google’s apparently unimpeachable objectivity got some people very excited, and technology utopians began to herald Google as the conduit for a new form of democracy. Google was only too pleased to encourage this view. It explained that its algorithm “relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. ”

That Google was impartial was one of the articles of faith. For if Google was ever to be found to be applying subjective human judgment directly on the process, it would be akin to the voting machines being rigged.

For these soothsayers of the Hive Mind, the years ahead looked prosperous. As blog-aware marketing and media consultants, they saw a lucrative future in explaining the New Emergent World Order to the uninitiated. (That part has come true – Web 2.0 “gurus” now advise large media companies).

It wasn’t surprising, then, that when five years ago I described how a small, self-selected number of people could rig Google’s search results, the reaction from the people doing the rigging was violently antagonistic. Who lifted that rock? they cried.

But what was once Googlewashing by a select few now has Google’s active participation. This week Marissa Meyer explained that editorial judgments will play a key role in Google searches.

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Google Health offers reputation massage

“Fire the publicist. Go off message. Let all your employees blab and blog!” fantasised the writer Clive Thompson in a recent WiReD magazine cover story.

“The name of this new game is RADICAL TRANSPARENCY, and it’s sweeping boardrooms across the nation,” burbled the mag.

But the perils of allowing employees to “blab and blog!” were splendidly illustrated over the weekend by Google.

“Does negative press make you Sicko?” asked Google health account planner Lauren Turner. She was referring to the new documentary by left wing demagogue Michael Moore about the US health provision.
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Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed … in 42 days

Second Superpower

In early 2003, the phrase “Second Superpower” became a popular way to refer to the street protests against the imminent invasion of Iraq. The metaphor had been used by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and on the cover of The Nation magazine. A small number of techno utopian webloggers hijacked the phrase.

The narrower sense sprung from a paper by a technocratic management consultant Jim Moore, who referred to direct democracy mediated through technology. It belongs to the school of literature in which the Internet is the manifestation of a “hive mind”. Only a few links from weblogs were sufficient to send the paper to the top of Google’s search results for the phrase “second superpower”.

In the New York Times, UC Stanford Linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg, wrote:

“Sometimes, though, the deliberations of the collective mind seem to come up short. Take Mr. Moore’s use of “second superpower” to refer to the Internet community. Not long ago, an article on the British technology site The Register accused Mr. Moore of “googlewashing” that expression – in effect, hijacking the expression and giving it a new meaning. The outcomes of Google’s popularity contests can be useful to know, but it’s a mistake to believe they reflect the consensus of the ‘Internet community’, whatever that might be, or to think of the Web as a single vast colloquy – the picture that’s implicit in all the talk of the Internet as a ‘digital commons’ or ‘collective mind’.

While in Le Monde, Pierre Lazuly observed:

When you search the net you are not examining all available knowledge, but only what contributors – universities, institutions, the media, individuals – have chosen to make freely available, at least temporarily. The quality of it is essential to the relevance of the results.” Lazuly drew attention’s to Google’s description of its algorithms as “uniquely democratic”:

“It’s a strange democracy where the voting rights of those in a position of influence are so much greater than those of new arrivals. ”
Lazuly concluded –

“Those who got there first in net use are now so well-established that they enjoy a level of representation out of proportion to their real importance. The quantity of links they maintain (especially through the mainly US phenomenon of webloggers) mathematically give them control of what Google thinks.”

Webloggers had enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Google. The dense interlinking between weblogs gave them a higher ranking in Google’s search results. This had not been written about before, and they didn’t like it one bit.

Search engine expert Gary Stock described it:

“[Google] didn’t foresee a tightly-bound body of wirers, They presumed that technicians at USC would link to the best papers from MIT, to the best local sites from a land trust or a river study – rather than a clique, a small group of people writing about each other constantly. They obviously bump the rankings system in a way for which it wasn’t prepared.”

“Each of us gets vote,” jokes Stock. “And someone votes every day and I vote once every four years.”

The act of being observed changes everything. As Slate‘s Paul Boutin concluded:

“Bloggers determined to prove they can be just as clueless and backbiting as the professional journalists they deride scored a major milestone this week …”

Read the original article below the fold.

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Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed … in 42 days

This year marks the 100th anniversary of George Orwell’s birth, and the writer who best explained the power of language on politics would be amazed what can be done with the Internet.
Second Superpower
On February 17 [2003] a front page news analysis in the New York Times bylined by Patrick Tyler described the global anti-war protests as the emergence of “the second superpower”.

Tyler wrote:

“…the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”

This potent phrase spread rapidly.

Anti-war campaigners, peace groups and NGOs took to describing the global popular protest as “the second superpower”. And in less than a month, the phrase was being used by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. .

And a week ago, a Google search for the phrase would have shown the vigorous propagation of this ‘meme’.

Rub out the word

Then came this. Entitled The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head, by James F Moore, it was accompanied by a brand new blog. The details need not detain us for very long, because the consequences of this piece are much more important than its anodyne contents.

It’s a plea for net users to organize themselves as a “superpower”, and represents a class of techno-utopian literature that John Perry Barlow has been promoting – the same sappy stuff, but not as well written – for the past ten years.

Only note how this example is sprinkled with trigger words for progressives, liberals and NPR listeners. It concludes – if you can find your way through this mound of feel-good styrofoam peanuts –

“we do not have to create a world where differences are resolved by war. It is not our destiny to live in a world of destruction, tedium, and tragedy. We will create a world of peace”.

In common with the genre, there’s no social or political context, although the author offers a single specific instruction that is very jarring in the surrounding blandness: we must co-operate with The World Bank. Huh?

It’s politics with the politics taken out: in short, it’s “revolution lite”.

Now here’s the important bit. Look what the phrase “Second Superpower” produces on Google now. Try it! Moore’s essay is right there at the top. And not just first, but it already occupies all but three of the first thirty spots.

The bashful Moore writes: “It was nice of Dave Winer [weblog tools vendor] and Doc Searls [advertising consultant] to pick up on it, even if it’s not really ready for much exposure.” No matter, Moore is an overnight A-list blogging superstar, at his very first attempt.

Although it took millions of people around the world to compel the Gray Lady to describe the anti-war movement as a “Second Superpower”, it took only a handful of webloggers to spin the alternative meaning to manufacture sufficient PageRank™ to flood Google with Moore’s alternative, neutered definition.

Indeed, if you were wearing your Google-goggles, and the search engine was your primary view of the world, you would have a hard time believing that the phrase “Second Superpower” ever meant anything else.

To all intents and purposes, the original meaning has been erased. Obliterated, in just seven weeks.

You’re especially susceptible to this if you subscribe to the view that Google’s PageRank™ is “inherently democratic,” which is how Google, Inc. describes it.

And this Googlewash took just 42 days.
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