Google Search – how we fetishize it and why we shouldn’t
Before attempting to answer these questions allow me to digress a bit. It seems very natural to think that with the proliferation of personal computing, and advancements in communication technologies that the production of Internet content became more readily accessible and available. These lead to the creation of user generated online content that was not organized under any structure. Following this logic, it does not come as a surprise that the mission statement of Google is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. It is a mission no doubt. A mission that Google is taking very seriously. Case and point is the recent rise in the struggle against spam and Google’s reaction to the growing number of spammy web pages that appear on search results. The rise in user generated content and the increased number of webpages throughout the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, have created a very “messy” Internet, where users were not able to sift through increasingly unmanageable quantities of information. This led, according to Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Googlization of Everything (2011), to a void where no authority was willing or able to make the web stable, usable, and trustworthy. It is into this void that Google entered, and it is this void that allowed it to grow and dominate the Internet.
The history of the Internet is well documented. Web 2.0 and user generated content have been hailed as the new form of democracy where anyone with a working Internet connection can log on, create content, share and be heard. But here is the problem: we have moved from ‘who can post/create online content’ to ‘who gets to be visible online. What good is a website, a blog, a post, a status update or a tweet that no one sees? Who gets to decide what gets to be visible and what gets buried under infinite amount of data? So we now have Search Engine Optimization companies, link building companies, and a host of other services that sprung up in the past 10 years all aimed at one goal: making their clients’ content visible online. And believe me, it’s a fierce competition and a very lucrative business, if you know what you are doing. But there is a catch. You must follow the rules.
I do not deny that Google has performed an invaluable service in sorting out internet content and creating a framework for webmasters and content producers to work in. Webmasters are constantly on alert and struggling to keep their web-pages on ‘best behavior’ with Google’s mandate in order to appear on search results. Seeing how Google is managing more than 65% of online search it is completely understandable that if a webmaster wishes to attract traffic to his/her site their webpage better be indexed by Google. To do that, they must adhere to a specific set of rules set forth by Google in their ongoing struggle to fight off spam and provide relevant content to searchers.
Google is a technocratic company. Its ultimate belief that advanced algorithms, big number crunching, speed, and “freshness” are expected to clean up search results, providing ever more relevant, valid, and current information in “1/8 of a second” is a testimony to that. But we need to be able to see past the numbers, past the sophisticated algorithms that rule cyberspace. We must not let our guards downs and become dependent on search engines to tell us what is valid, what is current and what is better than what.
Google’s vision of the democratization of the Internet is manifested in this form: the users create, judge, and rate the content they then see as their search results. But this is not entirely true. If this was true, unfortunately, will we see much more pornography and questionably illegal content appearing on our search results (notably we still do but the frequency is much lower thanks to Google’s algorithms). Google’s algorithms step in to “help” the search process. Google’s political and economic influences were shaped by both its ideology to focus on its users and alongside its founders’ visions of changing the world and reshaping civilization (with the aid of technological advancements). These two components are critical. Search engines in general and Google in particular are aimed at naturalizing this task of searching and risking turning us into dependent searchers. Dependent on algorithms and formulas spanning 200 variables (in Google’s case) that are constantly being revisited, changed, and expanded.
What is this fetishization for information or search? I type something in Google and in 1/8 of a second, after running through 200 variables, I get those 10 blue links. But why did I get these results? How? This is what Karl Marx called in a way commodity fetishism – we think that products are just there, they have these sort of magical powers – they just appear from nowhere. We don’t pay attention to the whole process that made these products available to us. Now switch products and search. Has search become a product? A product that delivers information? Each product goes through a cycle as Marx argued many years ago: production, distribution, exchange and consumption. If we would apply this to search we will find that: there is an ideology behind the programming of a search engine, this ideology affects the distribution of information, there is an exchange that takes place between searchers and the search engine, and we consume that information. A product!
The information we get from commercial search engines is information that the search engine thinks we want, not necessarily the information we need. This information is based on commercial interests and encapsulates our understanding of the world rather than broadens it. This has brought us to a point where we need to shop for search just as we shop for any other product; just as we shop around for cars, clothes, shoes etc. we need to shop around for what search engine we use. There are other search engines out there. Typing in Wikipedia “A list of search engines” will produce about 16 different themes which hold a total of well over 100 search engines. Each one of them provides a different specialty, user experience, speed, accuracy, relevancy and so on. We need to address the fact that search has become a commodity. A commodity that is offered for “free” (I use the term loosely because we do give something in return for using a search engine – we give our attention to it which it then sells to advertisers). But unlike any other product or commodity, what is at stake here is not comfort, style or status, but how searchers find out about things that matter to them. What is at stake here is how searchers find out about the world. What is at stake here, like Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder state in the introduction to Deep Search, is “nothing less how we, individually and collectively, find out about the world”.
We should not take the task of searching for granted. We should not be blinded by features such as “auto fill”, “knowledge graph” and such. They numb our senses. As long as we are not made aware of those 200 variable that Google is using to provide us with the “best” search results we cannot ever be sure that it is worthy of our trust. Online search has become the tool through which we find out about things that matter to us. To blindly trust this tool is to place the way we view the world in the hands of engineers and sophisticated algorithms that determine what is right for us and what is wrong for us.
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