Some stories just take forever to come true. 30 months ago, we revealed Google was going to introduce a weblog search engine – and this week, it finally did. The story, so obvious in retrospect, barely merits the term ‘scoop’. But now, as then, it has been eclipsed by a raging debate about the implications for bloggers and for the web in general.
A great many people see this as the perfect opportunity to improve Google search – and introduce some innovation into the world of web user interface navigation – by removing weblogs from the main Google index, and giving them their own tab, as Usenet enjoys now.
Google, along with rival search engines which aped its link based algorithms, has to wrestle with the constantly evolving techniques deployed to trick it into promoting certain web pages. It’s an arms race comparable to email spam, and one of the chief culprits is ‘blog noise’ – a catch all term for the irrelevant blog entries and all the extraneous plumbing that props them up: RSS feeds, empty pages, duplicate pages, TrackBacks, and so on.
This inadvertently has the effect of skewing Google’s results to promote the irrelevant pages, with a side consequence of conferring instant web celebrity on some of the bloggers. A huge and lucrative industry of SEOs sprang up overnight, mimicking many of the techniques bloggers had used to gain advantage, and Google began to index pages almost constantly. Google’s index reached its nadir in October 2003, when almost every search result in the Top Ten for certain queries was an empty and useless page – in each case, the culprit being blog-related.
Readers pegged it as a “life or death” issue for Google. But to exclude anything messy, such as blogs or product catalogs, from the main index risks antagonizing vested interests. Some internet utopians have placed so much faith in blogs, and identify so strongly with them, that act of the exclusion is like being unplugged from a life support system. And maybe for such people, as Jaron Lanier has suggested, there is no core of subjective real world experience to fall back on, once the electronic representation of self has floated away.
Weblog evangelists like to see fellow practitioners as very special flowers indeed – uniquely representative of the rest of us, the one true authentic voice of the people, and the very cortex of the web’s “hive mind”. Remove weblog chatter from the web, they argue, and you lose the very essence of the internet. Like er… cat pictures.
Since the blog fad began the US media has been complicit. This has less to do with a new found infatuation with electronics networks and more to do with the fact that the professional media here is monopolistic and owned by the same corporations which own the US government, and will do absolutely anything to avoid improving the quality of its product So it’s promoted, rather patronizingly, bloggers as unique citizens with almost telepathic properties. Last year’s Presidential election regularly cut away to “hear what the bloggers are saying,” as if it was some secret communication channel, populated by the highly evolved. One blogger yesterday encapsulated the anxieties about being estrangemed from Google’s main search index very nicely in comments left at the website of Google hagiographer John Battelle:
“From a utilitarian perspective and a ‘blogger’ myself, I suppose I should be very excited about this move. But instead, I’m unhappy about what I perceive to be a rather slippery slope… moving more towards filtering by structure rather than message,” he writes.
Alas, search engines have always filtered by structure, rather than the message, and so they should. Just as Usenet benefitted from being a web interface that respected its underlying structure, so could blogs. Blogs are so atomized they desperately need better navigation – and here, clearly, Google can help.
A consequence of this wonderful publishing tool is that the discourse has proved to be so dreadful. There’s a case to be made for Weblogs as the most anti-social software yet devised. No wonder they’re so popular with egotists, as the right to speech without consequences reaches its apogee on the web soap box. Compared to bulletin boards, or group discussions, there’s no one to temper the conversation, or steer it to more useful outcomes. There is a lot of posturing, however, in this fragmented world of a Million Nation States of One. And as anyone who has tried to follow “the conversation” across dozens of fragments can confirm, it’s the antithesis of coherent discussion. So it’s revealing that one site which started as a weblog, and dropped the restrictive format in favor of editorial control and a Slashdot-style system, has become a runaway success: DailyKos.
Slashdot members have never liked the blog hype, so it was amusing to see the debatereprised once again.
“Please let this mean that blogs are now excluded from the main google search?? Why can’t they add an extra tab (sites, images, news, blogs)?” asks one poster.
“With a Report this blog link?”, suggests another.
Later, we learn that a developer is creating a toolbar add-in which appends the indispensible string -inurl:www.livejournal.com -inurl:*.blogspot.com – blog [and so on] to Google queries, so Google can ignore blogs in its search query. It sure beats typing it in every time.
The Balkanization of the internet is something we’ve covered before: it’s happening at a social level, where people opt only speak to other like-minded people, and at the technical level, with subnets only accepting traffic from known and trusted nets. But there’s irony aplenty in the notion that a form of communication so atomized becomes marginalized. How could it end up any other way?
In the end, it comes down to what we really want from computer networks, and we can start by adding up what we value already. Harmless amusement at work? Probably. Comfortable shopping? Definitely. Hods of “free” porn and music? Absolutely – and we can even begin topay the artists who create it.
But as an alternative, escapist universe, it was always going to come up short. Any interaction that requires something like ‘humor tags’ to work was always going to be several steps behind real human discourse. The mooted Google Blog Tab is simply the world’s polite way of telling the utopians to take their toys and move along.