Moon 1 Molly Moon Professor William Sonnega Mass Media Midterm Essay 17 March 2011 Evolution of the Information Age: Google as Homepage What does the term google really mean? The word has been integrated into the English language, is almost overused in various forms colloquially, and has even been added to numerous dictionaries. Coincidentally, the term was originally developed from a grammatical error, a misspelled version of the word googol. A googol is the name for the number one followed by one-hundred zeros; today, googol seamlessly parallels the billions of webpages Google indexes, totaling approximately 100 million gigabytes of information (Google Corporate). Even so, we take for granted the efficiency with which we can google “Japan Tsunami” and know what is happening this very instant in a natural disaster thousands of miles away, or search the keyword “dresses” and are bombarded with various styles, retailers, and prices to satiate our online browsing pleasure. Indeed, we almost cannot fathom the internet without Google‟s guiding presence. But what happens when Google misses a imperfection concerning the search term “dresses” or even worse, “Japan Tsunami?” What really is googling, what happens in that instant between hitting enter and receiving Google‟s top results for a keyword search query, and why is it important? Google has worked long and hard to create what co-founder Larry Page considers a “perfect search engine” or “something that understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want” (Google Corporate). As promised, Google has become increasingly efficient at providing users exactly what is requested. The search engine harnesses the power of algorithms, webpage rankings, and auctions-based ad sales, among other tactics the company won‟t even discuss, to facilitate each google; a combination of processes few users are familiar
Moon 2 with or even understand. However, by investigating how and why Google actively organizes information in this, the information age, we uncover the true value it has in the world today. Recent examples of ways in which Google has intentionally lowered company ranks in keyword search results and overhauled its search algorithms sheds light on the complexity of the Google process overall. However, these are merely two examples Google‟s ability to act as an influence over the scope of Internet search today and consequently the evolution of the information age in its entirety. According to Alexa rankings Google is the number one website in the United States, and the world. The ubiquitous use of Google services illustrates a revelation in the computing age: Google is no longer just a webpage, but the homepage of the Internet. Peter Osnos, the vicechairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, describes Google‟s role today as “the dominant force in what has turned out to be the central organizing principle of the Internet‟s impact on our lives” (100). The company has been touted as Millward Brown BrandZ‟s Most Valuable Global Brand of 2010, a well-deserved honor considering the search engine handles 65% of American and 85% of European search queries, and yet charges nothing for public use of the company‟s extensive indexing and continual refining of the Internet (Clark). Because of this Google is able to generate an amazing catalog of users‟ tastes and habits and correspondingly sell and place ads that complement user preferences. Steven Levy, a senior writer for Wired Magazine, describes this ability as how Google “shifts and processes in order to predict future consumer behavior, find ways to improve its products, and sell more ads,” a system he cheekily refers to as Googlenomics. The term describes the “data-fueled feedback loop” Levy considers to be not only the axis of Google‟s future, but the axis of all online business. By collecting more and more data, the company correspondingly gains more ways in which to exploit the information within the Google economy (Levy 159). Internet users rarely type in full URLs in this developing Google economy. Instead, keywords are entered into the Google search bar and users not only assume, but trust like oil in
Moon 3 water, the best matches will rise to the top of the results. To Google‟s credit, this often happens. As noted before, searching a current news event will result in a comprehensive list of the day‟s relevant news stories. Osnos, highlights how “digital delivery is going to be a (or perhaps the) main way people find out what is happening around them, so the burden of responsibility on those who frame the way news is presented is incalculable” (103). This is a responsibility Google takes quite seriously. The company‟s corporate technology overview page explains how webpages are systematically ranked utilizing over 200 signals to produce extraordinarily powerful algorithms that are updated weekly. Such intricate use of analysis and technology is the backbone of Google‟s tactics. However, such complex formulas are not without their downfalls. A pertinent example of the Google algorithms failing that peaked this past holiday season was when many generic search keywords produced results for anything and everything JCPenney. After months of rising to the top results in cross-category searches from the ambiguous search for “dresses” to more specific queries like “Samsonite carry-on luggage,” JCPenney sparked a point of intrigue with reporters at the New York Times. After extensive research it was uncovered that thousands of links were placed in random places throughout the Web, all linking back to JCPenney. This is the art of “black hat optimization,” one of the ultimate sins in Google‟s metaphoric rule book of search engine optimization. Although JCPenney claims no involvement with or knowledge of the development of the content farmed links and while the practice itself is not illegal, the penalty as described by the Times might be worse, “a pair of virtual concrete shoes: the company sinks in Google‟s results” (Segal). While it took months for to embed enough links to raise JCPenney search rankings to the top, it took Google only two hours after beginning “manual action” against the black hat tactics to sink JCPenney‟s No. 1 “Samsonite carry-on luggage” ranking, to a shameful No. 71 (Segal). This extreme and swift retribution is a prime example of Google‟s power in shaping our scope of search. As illustrated by this single anecdote such power may make Google seem overzealous, but overall it is a
Moon 4 necessary action to maintain the integrity of company services. When placed in the context of a larger movement that took place only weeks after the JCPenney crusade, the actions can be seen in a different light. In the last days of February 2011, Google launched an immense overhaul to its search algorithms ultimately affecting 11.8% of queries since the change. Within weeks these changes led to layoffs in affected companies because of reduced site traffic and ad earnings (AdvertisingAge). Again, this intentional and direct action highlights Google‟s power in affecting the consumer lens of the internet. In a society of freedom of speech and expression this type of influence seems out of line with our country‟s core values. However, one must look deeper to see the real effects of such actions. In his, tersely titled article “Why Google‟s New Search Algorithm Doesn‟t Suck” Bernhard Warner explains in Advertising Age why such targeted actions are ultimately improvements to Google search. Warner opens by describing how Google‟s promised changes would “mercifully relegate content farms, scraper pirates and blatant SEO whores to secondary pages, and, in turn, reward high-quality sites rich in original content.” He cites Online Publishers Association estimate that the change will “redistribute $1 billion in revenue in a great „flight to quality‟ away from content farms.” It seems the lost jobs at other websites were a worthy sacrifice. Again, it comes to a mindfully guided scope of information housing data-rich sites over content-farmed material. Conversely for this Google‟s mindful guidance was not met with universal praise. Google‟s commitment to providing “high-qualitiy sites rich in original content” is great in theory, but who is to say Google‟s opinion of what is good or bad is always correct? Siva Vaidhyanathan the author of “The Googalization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)” praises the change. However, she follows her praise with a cautionary thought, “This is a change that I think improves the web. But who‟s to say the next decision is going to be, first of all, so public, and secondly, so beneficial?” (AdvertisingAge) Indeed, Vaidhyanathan‟s warnings are well deserved, but her comments shed light to the theme we all know: Google will always have
Moon 5 an effect on what we see. Danny Sullivan, search expert and editor-in-chief at Search Engine Land, sites a point that may put Vaidhyanathan‟s worries to ease saying, “I don‟t‟ think they‟ve done this just because it benefits Google, except that it benefits Google to have good search” (AdvertisingAge). Indeed, Google‟s recent changes were so influential they inevitably raise concern for Google‟s ability to become a monopoly, but the final point always comes back to Google‟s ultimate goal: “to create the perfect search engine…something that understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want” (Google Corporate). Google‟s recent algorithm overhaul reflects its understanding of strong-minded action as an essential component to overall search efficiency. “We‟re very excited about this new ranking improvement because we believe it‟s a big step in the right direction of helping people find ever higher quality in our results” (Google Corporate). Although the tactics can be viewed as too blatantly unapologetic for those who worry about a Google monopoly, like concerns in in the European Union where Google currently faces anti-trust charges (Steinhauser). Yet, while there are crusades for greater regulation, Google ultimately stands by their algorithmic improvements. Marissa Mayer, Google‟s Director of Consumer Web Products, explained to Business Week how the company‟s sense of fearlessness is essential for continued innovation (Elgin). That was over five years ago. Today, Google‟s action against black hat practices illustrates the company‟s fearlessness in their actions to optimize information search across the World Wide Web today. It is this fearlessness that makes Google more than just a search engine, but the homepage of the internet that is driving the information age forward.
Moon 6 Works Cited AdvertisingAge. “Apple, Facebook, and Google are the de Facto Regulators of the Digital Domain.” Advertising Age. Crain Communications, 6 March 2011. Web. 16 March 2011. Clark, Andrew. “Google faces anti-monopoly probe by European Commission.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 24 Feb. 2010. Web. 15 March 2011. Elgin, Ben. “Managing Google‟s Idea Factory: Marissa Mayer helps the search giant out-think its rivals.” Business Week. Bloomberg, 3 Oct. 2005. Web. 16 March 2011. Google Corporate. “Technology Overview.” Google Corporate Information. Google Inc. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. Levy, Steven. “The Secrets of Googlenomics.” Mass Media 10/11. Ed. Joan Gorham. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 158-163. Print. Osnos, Peter. “What‟s a Fair Share in the Age of Google?: How to Think about News in the Link Economy.” Mass Media 10/11. Ed. Joan Gorham. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 100103. Print. Segal, David. “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Feb. 2011. Web. 15 March 2011. Singhal, Amit, and Matt Cutts. "Finding More High-quality Sites in Search." The Official Google Blog, 24 Feb. 2011. Google Inc. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. Steinhauser, Gabriele. “Google Faces New Antitrust Charges in EU.” Huffington Post Tech. The Huffington Post, 22 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 March 2011. Warner, Bernhard. “Why Google‟s New Search Algorithm Doesn‟t Suck: How the Changes May Help Brands if They‟re Producing Good Content.” Advertising Age. Crain Communications, 10 March 2011. Web. 16 March 2011.