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.
It was reported by Tech Crunch proprietor Michael Arrington – who Nick Carr called the “Madam of the Web 2.0 Brothel” – but its significance wasn’t noted. The irony flew safely over his head at 30,000 feet. Arrington observed:
Mayer also talked about Google’s use of user data created by actions on Wiki search to improve search results on Google in general. For now that data is not being used to change overall search results, she said. But in the future it’s likely Google will use the data to at least make obvious changes. An example is if “thousands of people” were to knock a search result off a search page, they’d be likely to make a change.
Now what, you may be thinking, is an “obvious change”? Is it one that is frivolous? (Thereby introducing a Google Frivolitimeter™ [Beta]). Or is it one that goes against the grain of the consensus? If so, then who decides what the consensus must be? Make no mistake, Google is moving into new territory: not only making arbitrary, editorial choices – really no different to Fox News, say, or any other media organization. It’s now in the business of validating and manufacturing consent: not only reporting what people say, but how you should think.
Who’s hand is upon the wheel, here? None of this would matter, if it wasn’t for one other trend: a paralysing loss of confidence in media companies.
Old media is hooked on the drug that kills it
Today, the media organisations look to Google to explain what is really happening in the world. Convinced that they can’t lead, the only option left is to follow. So they reflect ourselves – or more accurately, they reflect the unstinting efforts of small self-selecting pockets of activists – back at us. In the absence of editorial confidence, Google – the Monster that threatens to Eat The Media – now defines the purpose of the media. All media companies need do is “tap into the zeitgeist” – Google Zeitgeist™!
Take this example from a quality British broadsheet.
One journalist on the paper lamented that:
…it’s becoming all too clear at The Telegraph, whose online business plan seems to be centred on chasing hits through Google by rehashing and rewriting stories that people are already interested in.
The digital director of the Telegraph recently suggested the newspaper could work even closer with Google… by subsuming its identity into the Ad Giant. Why couldn’t The Telegraph run off a telegraph.google.com domain and allow Google to take care of all the technology? he mused.
Not all companies have the same suicidal lack of foresight as The Telegraph’s resident guru – but many share the same apocalyptic conclusion.
Today, Google’s cute little explanation of being “uniquely democratic” is no longer present on that page. A subtly different explanation has taken its place – one which acknowledges that in the new democracy of Web 2.0, some votes are more equal than others.
PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. We have always taken a pragmatic approach to help improve search quality and create useful products, and our technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page’s importance.