For seasoned users of the internet, the chronology of our era divides into two ages: BG and AG – before and after Google. The year 1998 marks the dividing line. Before then, as the web expanded exponentially, a host of “search engines” had attempted to provide searchable indexes to it. The best of them was AltaVista, which launched in 1995 and provided the first searchable, full-text database of the web via a simple interface. It was the engine that I and most of my colleagues used until one fateful day in 1998 when an even starker webpage appeared with a simple text box and almost nothing else except the name Google. And from the moment you first used it, there was no going back.
Why? Because Google used an original way of ranking the relevance of the results turned up by a query. It effectively conducted an automated peer review of websites. The more webpages linked to a particular site, the more relevant it was likely to be and so it was given a higher ranking. The algorithm, dubbed PageRank, which did this was the foundation on which Google’s domination of the internet search was built.
The reason Google swept all before it was that its ranking system seemed objective: it just counted links and ranked accordingly. It could be gamed, of course, and a mini-industry of search engine optimisers evolved to try and ensure that a Google search would highly rank their clients’ pages. But Google users could at least be confident that the company itself wasn’t favouring some results over others. No advertising was involved.
The company’s founders were adamant that favouring advertisers’ pages would dishonor the integrity of their results. “We expect,” they wrote in 1998, “that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers… we the issue of advertising causes enough believe mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.”
Quite so. But then, after burning investors’ money for two years, the founders discovered in 2000 that high-minded objectivity doesn’t pay the rent and so they morphed into surveillance capitalists, monitoring their users to glean information about them that would be of interest to advertisers. Between then and the company’s initial public offering in 2004, Google’s revenues increased by nearly 4,000%.
For a long time, the intrusion of advertising considerations didn’t seem to bother users much, though it understandably riled industry competitors and regulators, especially in the EU (to which Google has paid billions of euros in fines). Despite this, its position as the dominant search engine across large parts of the globe has remained stable since, well, for ever. That suggests that the company must be doing something right, if only because, unlike, say, with Facebook, genuine alternative search engines are readily available.
All of which makes the online fuss generated by a blogpost by Dmitri Brereton, a software engineer at a San Francisco company, intriguing. Under the heading Google Search Is Dying, Brereton wrote: “If you’ve tried to search for a recipe or product review recently, I don’t need to tell you that Google search results have gone to shit. You would have already noticed that the first few non-ad results are SEO [search engine optimisation] optimized sites filled with affiliate links and ads.”
He admits that Google still gives decent results for many other categories, “especially when it comes to factual information. You might think that Google results are pretty good for you, and you have no idea what I’m talking about. What you don’t realise is that you’ve been self-censoring yourself from searching most of the things you would have wanted to search. You already know subconsciously that Google isn’t going to return a good result.”
This struck me as a bit patronising, even though it sparked a chorus of approval on Reddit and Hacker News and even a piece in the New Yorker. The general tenor of the discussion was that only clueless idiots would do a simple Google search rather than the complex formulae available to those who know what they’re doing.
Since I don’t have a dog in this fight (I use Google very little and DuckDuckGo most of the time), my hunch is that this is the online equivalent of a storm in a teacup. On the occasions when I use Google, it’s generally for factual stuff and so my experience may be different from that of the Reddit and Hacker News crowd. It may be, as the New Yorker suggests, that the results coming from Google are a reflection of how good the SEO-optimising crowd are at gaming PageRank.
The chief executive of DuckDuckGo (who of course does have a dog in the fight) offers three other possible reasons for dissatisfaction with Google. One is users’ aversion to being tracked. Another is annoyance at the way Google prioritises its own products in purchase-related search results. And the third? Simply boredom: we’ve been living in AG for so long that people yearn for something different. If that’s what’s really bugging them, they should remember that solutions are just a click away.
What I’ve been reading
Putin’s Challenge to the American Right is a terrific blast from Andrew Sullivan on his blog.
Pride before a fall
Peter Savodnik’s remarkable essay The Dawn of Uncivilization examines western (and particularly US) hubris post-1989.
In Preparing for Defeat, Francis Fukuyama outlines (on the American Purpose blog) why he believes Vladimir Putin is destined to lose.