Lost in the discussion about Google changing its algorithm to defeat ‘googlebombs’, is that it marks a turning point for the search engine – pointing away from a service that that trumpeted democratic means to determine relevancy of links in search results.
Web 2.0 proponents believe that algorithms, when used to achieve such aims, are somehow different then human editors.
They certainly scale better. But goals can be very much the same.
Instead of letting the web inform Google what *it* wants, Google has started to second guess the web. Maybe it has all along and PageRank was nothing more then a marketing message. I don’t think so. I think what we’re seeing here is a passing to be mourned.
Nick Carr puts it clearly in his Guardian piece:
…One of the company’s top engineers, Matt Cutts, explained the move on a Google blog: “Because these pranks are normally for phrases that are well off the beaten path, they haven’t been a very high priority for us. But over time, we’ve seen more people assume that they are Google’s opinion, or that Google has hand-coded the results for these Googlebombed queries. That’s not true, and it seemed like it was worth trying to correct that misperception.” (googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com)
The company is allowing concerns about its public image to influence the search results it dishes up. The upshot in this case may be salubrious, but what kind of precedent is being set here?
And, perhaps more important, what does it tell us about what’s inside the Google black box that determines how most of us find information on the web most of the time?
Three years ago, when Google was first asked about Googlebombing, it gave the corporate equivalent of a shrug. It’s not our problem, the company’s technology director, Craig Silverstein, told the New York Times. “We just reflect the opinion on the Web, for better or worse.”
The implication was that Google’s search engine was a passive feedback mechanism that reported the public’s wisdom – or stupidity – back to the public. Reflecting all the strengths and flaws of democracy, it was the people’s machine. Google itself had little control over it. (nytimes.com)
The perception of Google as an honest broker, disinterested in the information it presents, remains a popular one. We like to believe that “we the people” control what comes out of Google’s mouth.
But while that may have been true once, and while it was in fact one of the company’s founding ideals, it’s not so true any more.
Not so long ago, technology pundits marveled at how Google enabled a group of bloggers to influence the meaning of the words ‘Second Superpower’:
…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.
Make no mistake, Second Superpower was a Googlebomb, that for now, still lives. But probably not for much longer.
Hey, I could be wrong. I’m not a search engineer. Search engineers worship the alter of relevancy above all else. And ‘miserable failure’ certainly was incorrectly defined – in a strict sense – by the linking web public. Like ‘second superpower’. But that was our linking influence that Google once let us wield. No longer it would seem.
Update: Seth Finkelstein comes by and mentions that the algorithm won’t eliminate the Second Superpower google-bomb *itself* due to the fact that the author probably didn’t mind it so much since the piece uses the text ‘Second Superpower’. Understood. And that’s not the point I was trying to make. The point is that the ‘Second Superpower’ is no more. The web – as a voting public, with linkage, now has less influence to define and redefine language, meaning and ultimately – drive attention. That maybe a good thing in terms of quality of search results. But that doesn’t celebrate or further the fabled ‘democratic’ nature of the web that Google once trumpeted as its means to its end. Another classic google-bomb that will probably disappear: santorum.
Nope. It’s pretty clear this algorithm change will affect only “undesired” links. If the text is in the title and page, as is the case for “Second Superpower”, it may still rank high.
Undesired by *whom* though?
The web as a voting public, or Google’s desire to represent what it feels is relevant?
There’s a good and bad to this, and in most of the usual circumstances the “bombings” were by the left against the right. Some day, the weapon would be turned on us. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In another frame, thing of digg. In the beginning, it was one person, one vote. But eventually, outside forces (PR companies, ideological groups, small clusters of individuals) teamed up to game the algorithim and manipulate democracy to change the flavor of the front page. Continue the metaphor to Government, and you can see how it relates to the US “democracy” (actually a Republic) here in meatspace. Corporations, special interest ideological groups, lobbyists, etc. found that they can bundle interests and money together to subvert the process. The problem with digg and democracy is that each step that you take to hedge against those leveraged influence attempts moves you further and further away from democratic principles. I guess the end result is that Democracy really only exists as a philosophical idea, and is actually unworkable in reality.