Going Google-Eyed

I’ve recently become aware of just how important Google is, and it’s not an entirely comfortable feeling. This all started when I noticed that visitors to girlswithguns.org had plummeted to a fraction of what they had been. A little investigation revealed that Google, which had been bringing people to the site quite happily, was now disavowing all knowledge of it.

The resulting search to find out what had happened, pulled the veil back off Google a little. Not that they helped much: an email requesting information from them went entirely unanswered for two weeks, and then got a boiler-plate response, telling me pretty much what I’d discovered elsewhere.

The precise algorithm Google uses to return results is a closely-guarded commercial secret, for obvious reasons – otherwise, it would be manipulated by every spammer, advertiser and porno site under the sun. What we know, is that one important factor is the number of pages that link to a site: in simple terms, if site A links to site B, it’s taken as a “vote” for Site B, boosting its importance. But the importance of site A is also taken into account: if microsoft.com links to your site, it’s probably better than if we do, much as it pains me to admit it.

This is a process still open to abuse: in the most famous incident, Adam Mathes convinced enough people to link to a friend’s website using the phrase “talentless hack”, that the friend became the #1 site returned when you Googled the phrase. Now, ironically, the stories about this “Google bombing” are top of the listing. This has since been used for purposes both good and evil, such as to target Critical IP, a corporation accused of unsolicited telemarketing to domain owners.

It’s a continuous process, with people striving to find ways to improve their listing, and Google tweaking their programs to prevent manipulation. For any search engine will only live or die by it proving useful to the people who use it. I still remember the first time I was pointed to Google (thanks, Mike and Steve!), back in the days when the main search engines were the likes of Yahoo and Altavista. How revolutionary it was to see a site without adverts, just a quick, clean interface.

Since then, Google has started to sneak in ads at the side and atop its listing, but it’s undeniably #1. It still does a pretty good job, especially when you consider that Google has to try and work out what you want: if I type in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, do I want to buy the film, read reviews of it, or find some piccies to nick for Film Blitz? [cough!]

Though it does seem I have to burrow further down these days to find decent sites. For example, the useless, advert-laden, Java-heavy rottentomatoes.com seems to crop up every time I type in a film title. What they need to add is some way to customise it to individual’s users’ needs, so that it “learns” from the sites it suggests that you visit, and skews future results towards those. Perhaps this apparent commercial bias is connected to the lurking possibility of Google selling their stock.

Which is something that concerns me, simply because of the power that Google wields: in the wrong hands, it could be used to censor, suppress or drive out of business. I estimate traffic to girlswithguns.org dropped off 90% after it ceased to appear on Google, and few companies could withstand that level of drop in sales. I believe Google should be a public utility, something run for the good of Internet users rather than for profit, as the potential for abuse is just too massive to leave in the hands of a private company. An effective monopoly on access to information such as Google has, is, at best, highly questionable.

However, it’s something where a free-market will likely prevail: if Google fails to deliver what people want, something will arise to supplant it, as Google replaced AltaVista. And I don’t care – for the moment, at least, since sanity has now returned, with girlswithguns.org now currently listed at #15 on a Google for “girls with guns”. But I see that if you search for “Trash City”, our commercial arm, trashcity.com has now supplanted us as the #1. Time to engage in some Google bombing, methinks… 🙂