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Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Google Effect

The debate concerning the existence of God raises many philosophical issues. A basic problem is that there is no universally accepted definition of God or existence. But you can always Google for it.Google was born from an idea in 1996. It gained momentum and it became a word in the English dictionary. To google means more than to search for something, it means to delegate the responsibility of the search, it means not simply search, but find the answers to your question.

It reminds me of that scifi joke about a universe populated by billions of races that decided to combine all their networks into a large information entity. Then they asked the question "Is there a God?" and the machine answered "Now there is" and melted the off switch with a bolt of lightning. Can one really trust the answers given to them by a machine?

I am not the paranoid type. This is not a blog post about the perils of machine domination or about the Machiavellian manipulation of the company wielders. Instead is an essay on the willingness of humans to delegate responsibility. "Surely Google is just a search engine, it is not intelligent and it could never take over the world", one might say. But that's exactly the problem. Millions of people in the world are willing to let this stupid thing find answers for them.

Why? Because it worked. The search engine has more information available that any human could possibly access, not to mention remember. It is a huge statistical machine that finds associations on words, concepts, the search person preferences, the relationships between people and any other data available, like who the searcher is. Any AI dabbler could tell you that this is the first step towards intelligence, but again, that is not the point. The algorithms employed are starting to fail. The information that has been gathered by Google is being eroded by "Search Engine Optimization" techniques, by time and by the people's own internal algorithms that have started to trust and care about only the first links in a search.

Already there are articles about the validity of the answers given by "Doctor Google", a nickname given to the search engine used in the context of finding out medical solutions. The same principle applies to almost everything. The basis of Google's search is that pages that are linked by other sites and blogs are probably more important or interesting that those that are not. Of course, there is more than that, like when was the page last updated, balck and white lists, and stuff like that, but basically, old information has better chances to get in the first searches. Also information that is on sites that are well done and organized. That raises the question: would a true specialist that spends a large amount of effort and time researching their field of activity have the skill set and be willing to spend the resources to have a professional web site? How about the people that are not specialists? How about people that are actively trying to take advantage of you?

You can easily check this by searching for a restaurant name. Chances are that the site for the restaurant is not even on the first page, which has been usurped by aggregators, review sites and others like that. If a technology has not changed its name, but went through a large change, chances are that googling for its name will get you reading about it before the change. Search for a book and you will get to Amazon, not a review or (God forbid) a download site. Search for "[anything] download" and you will get to huge ad-ridden sites that have a page for just about every search that contains those words, but, surprise, no download.

Do not think that I am attempting to bash Google. Instead, I am trying to understand why such obvious things are not taken into consideration by the people doing the search. The same thing applies to other sites that have gained our confidence, so now are targets for more and more advanced cons. Confidence is a coin, after all, one that gets increasingly important as the distribution monopoly gets out of the hands of huge corporations and dissembles into a myriad of blogs and forum sites. This includes Wikipedia, IMDb, aggregators of all kinds, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. I know that we don't really have the time to do in depth searches for everything, but do you remember the old saying "God is in the details"?

Has Google reached godhood? Is it one we faithfully turn to for our answers? The Church of Google seems to think so. There are articles being written now about Searching without searching, algorithms that would take into consideration who you are when you are searching in order to give you the relevant information. It is a great concept, but doesn't that mean we will trust in a machine's definition of our own identity?

I once needed to find some information about some Java functions. Google either has statistical knowledge that .Net is cooler or that I have searched .Net related topics in the past and would swamp me with .Net results, which have pretty similar method names. Imagine you are trying to change your identity, exploring things that are beyond your scope of knowledge. Google would just try to stop you, just like family and friends, who give comfort, but also hold dearly to who you were rather that who you might be or want to become. And it is a global entity, there for you no matter where. You can't just move out!

To sum up, I have (quite recently) discovered that even for trivial searches, paying attention to all the links on the first page AND the second is imperative if I want to get the result I want, not just the one suggested. Seeing a Wikipedia link in the found items doesn't mean I should go there and not look at the others. Imdb is great at storing information about movies, but I can't trust the rating (or the first review on the page). YouTube is phenomenal at hosting video, but if I want something that is fresh and not lawyer approved I need to go to other sites as well. When having a problem and asking a friend, I appreciate their answer and seek at least a second opinion.

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