Giddy over Google
The world's biggest search engine is slated and feted for the wrong reasons.
This week we caught a snapshot of the worldwide preoccupations of internet users.
The ‘2003 year-end Google zeitgeist’ lists the most popular of more than 55billion searches conducted on Google during the past year. The top 10 were pop stars (‘Britney Spears’ in the lead, with ‘Shakira’ and ‘50 Cent’ close behind), fantasy/science fiction film and book franchises (‘Harry Potter’, ‘Matrix‘, ‘Lord of the Rings‘), sporting personalities and events (‘David Beckham’, ‘Kobe Bryant’, ‘Tour de France’), and a solitary country – predictably, ‘Iraq’.
Given that Google is used for recreation as well as work, the dominance of entertainment and sport is perhaps of no surprise. But even if you look at the top searches within Google’s ‘News’ section, while ‘Iraq’ tops the list (and ‘Korea’ is in there too), celebrities from the world of entertainment still feature prominently. This shows the extent to which celebrity tittle-tattle dominates today’s news. ‘Kobe Bryant’ is up there (the basketball player accused of rape in 2003), along with ‘Bertrand Cantat’ (the singer accused of murder in 2003), ‘Michael Jackson’ (the singer accused of child molestation in 2003), and ‘Dixie Chicks’ (the country group that caused a stir in 2003 by criticising the war on Iraq).
While the most popular Google searches had a strong US bias, the most popular searches on Google’s UK website provided a somewhat cruel caricature of the British national character. The top five British search terms were ‘Prince Charles’, ‘EastEnders‘, ‘Winnie the Pooh’, ‘Jonny Wilkinson’ and ‘EasyJet’. Prince Charles almost certainly tops the list as a result of scandalous allegations made about him in November 2003, that the British print and broadcast media were prohibited from reporting in detail (1).
The ‘2003 year-end Google zeitgeist’ highlights the increasing ubiquity of Google as a search tool. The search engine’s name – derived from ‘googol’, the word coined by the mathematician Edward Kasner in 1938 for the number 1×10100 – has now entered into popular currency as a noun, adjective and verb, as have a number of related, often baffling terms.
For example, ‘Googlebombing’ – a close relation of ‘spamdexing’ – refers to the practice of creating and managing web links in order to trick Google’s search algorithms into associating particular search terms with particular results. This has often been done for commercial purposes, but is also increasingly popular as a prank or political gesture – one Googlebombing recently associated US president George W Bush with the phrase ‘miserable failure’. Even on its own petty terms this wasn’t much of an achievement, given that Google had associated Bush with the phrase ‘dumb motherfucker’ almost three years earlier (2).
Elsewhere, the British comedian Dave Gorman has named his new book and most recent live show after ‘Googlewhacking’ – the practice of finding two words that when entered into Google return only one result. And the term ‘Google grief’ refers to the traumatic experience of looking up an old friend of Google and discovering that they are dead (3).
This is all harmless enough, if a little obsessive, but a number of commentators have more serious concerns about Google. The BBC News technology columnist Bill Thompson has suggested that ‘Ofsearch, the Office of Search Engines’ be set up by government to rein in Google’s dangerous power, and has wryly made it his new year’s resolution in 2004 to ‘break my addiction to Google’. Guardian technology columnist Jack Schofield argues that ‘things that were simple when Google had just a few geek users are now hard because it is under continuous attack from thousands of people who track its every move and will resort to any trick they can find to get their sites ranked higher’ (4). In truth, as I have argued previously on spiked, it is the geeks rather than the great unwashed who have tended to throw a spanner into Google’s works, by privileging random and insubstantial content through weblogs (see Google hogged by blogs).
The anti-Google website Google Watch states grimly that ‘there’s a struggle going on for the soul of the web, and the focal point of this struggle is Google itself’. Even more apocalyptic language is used by Wired magazine, which published an article in 2003 entitled ‘Google v Evil’, looking at the bizarre question of whether Google is losing its battle with the forces of darkness. But Google itself has actually encouraged such talk of good and evil. The company behind the search engine invites moral assessments, with its motto ‘don’t be evil’, and with a section of its corporate information headed ‘You can make money without doing evil’ (5).
This homegrown morality will come back to haunt Google in 2004. The company is set to float its stock this year, having resisted the temptation to do so during the era of dotcom madness. Every business decision that Google has made to date, such as carefully introducing inconspicuous advertisements, has been met with moral opprobrium. So it is no surprise that the company’s decision to float its stock has been met with howls of derision.
Reports that Microsoft recently made tentative overtures towards acquiring Google gave rise to fears that an inferior hybrid, ‘Mooglesoft’, would result. One journalist was dismayed at the prospect of ‘soberly dressed “suits” marching past the giant multicoloured exercise balls and the lava lamps, past the kitchen dispensing breakfast cereals and smoothies and past the systems engineers playing roller hockey in the car park’ (6).
Such silly reactions are the tragic consequence of a brilliant, idiosyncratic company making its innovation synonymous with a self-deprecating and moralistic corporate outlook. Admittedly, Google was originally a creature of academia – it started when two PhD students developed the search-ranking algorithm PageRank, and it has benefited from developing its technology away from the vagaries of the marketplace. But inasmuch as Google’s success means that it has to negotiate with the marketplace, it should be more upfront about the terms of doing business. Otherwise, people will tend to judge it by moral standards that no successful enterprise could ever meet (7).
This is a pity. Bill Thompson concedes that Google’s shortcomings will remain endemic to the web ‘until we move…towards something like the Semantic Web’. The Semantic Web is worldwide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of a situation where ‘the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines, leaving humans to provide the inspiration and intuition’ (8). It remains to be seen whether this will become reality, but it is an inspiring and worthwhile vision to which Google is helping contribute.
Among a number of other experiments, Google recently published and made searchable selected content from books. These developments point to an exciting prospective future where the wealth of human knowledge stored in books is integrated with the knowledge stored on the web (9).
Paradoxically, Google is both less important and more important than people tend to realise. The geeks develop an agonised relationship with Google, spending their time Googlebombing, Googlewhacking, and watching the ‘Google dance’ that takes place when Google updates its index and makes adjustments to its search criteria every month or so. The rest of us mine Google for gossip and trivia, whiling away the hours digging up the latest dirt on Britney Spears and Prince Charles. And Google the company shoots itself in the foot by casting its achievements in moralistic terms.
But in spite of all this, Google quietly continues to pave the way for the future development of the internet – not as a focus for neurotic attention, or a mirror of society’s more lurid preoccupations, but as a fantastically useful tool that we might employ for new and progressive ends.
Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
(1) 2003 Year-end Google zeitgeist – search patterns, trends, and surprises, on the Google website. See Royale with sleaze, by Brendan O’Neill
(2) See ‘Miserable failure’ links to Bush, BBC News, 7 December 2003; Google link Is Bush league, Farhad Manjoo, Wired News, 25 January 2001
(3) See the Googlewhack website; the Googlewhack Adventure section of the Dave Gorman website; Getting over Google grief, Michele Kirsch, Observer, 12 October 2003
(4) Is Google too powerful? , Bill Thompson, BBC News, 21 February 2003; Is Google good for you?, Bill Thompson, BBC News, 19 December 2003; Google fights for top spot, Jack Schofield, Guardian, 30 October 2003
(5) And then there were four: why we target Google, Google Watch; Google v Evil, Josh McHugh, Wired, January 2003; Google Today, on the Google website
(6) See Microsoft runs search for a way to take over internet giant Google, David Teather, Guardian, 1 November 2003; Googlistas will never be Mooglesofters, Guardian, 1 November 2003; Google swaps anoraks for suits, Owen Gibson, Guardian, 24 October 2003
(7) See Googlelashing, Sandy Starr, Tech Central Station, 3 July 2003
(8) Finding what you want on the web, Bill Thompson, BBC News, 2 January 2004; Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the Worldwide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, Texere, 2000, p169-170 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))
(9) See About Google Print (BETA), on the Google website. Web retailer Amazon has also introduced a similar feature – see The Great Library of Amazonia, Gary Wolf, Wired, December 2003
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