Beware the house hippo….

Our readings for Digital History this past week focused on internet search engines; Google in particular.  If you are like me, when you Google something, you generally look only at the top 5 results and possibly continue to revise your search criteria until you find what you think you are looking for.  This way of searching is, in and of itself, biased.  You are not looking for any answer – you are looking for a particular answer. You are looking for a confirmation of what you think you know.

However, Google is even more biased than we realize.  I think most of us all know by now that the first few results that appear in a Google search are actually paid advertisements.  For example, if someone had recently arrived in the fine province of Ontario and wished to do some sight-seeing, a search in Google of  “Ontario vacations,” would reveal over 2 million results, the first three of which are “sponsored” (ie – paid ads from companies trying to sell vacation packages or hotels) and do not necessarily provide you with all of the information you seek.  As I said, I think most people are aware of this by now, but anyone who is not and consistently clicks on one of these results, is receiving very skewed information.

Another aspect of Google that we learned about, which was much more illuminating, was the Google ranking system.  Of those 2 million sites about Ontario vacations, how does Google decide what to display on the first page?  Google is constantly indexing sites and pages on the web, with the help of its “Googlebots.”  Google not only searches for keywords, but it also takes note of when the site is linked to by another site.  The more inbound links to a site that Google can find, the more credible it is deemed and the higher it appears on the search results.  Thus, you are not necessarily getting the most relevant results – you are essentially getting the most popular results.  (For further information on Google’s ranking system – look up Googlebombing).

It is always important to be a critical reader and to ask questions and analyze.  Even a well researched, well written  book must be read carefully.  The most knowledgeable and authoritative voice on a topic still has an opinion and exhibits some form of bias, whether apparent or not, in his or her writing.  Google is no exception to this rule and we must all learn to be more active searchers.

With this, and in the spirit of our class’ recent visit to the mid 90s, I leave you with this important message from Concerned Children’s Advertisers:

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4 thoughts on “Beware the house hippo….

  1. Thanks for this post, because I am often guilty of this.
    There is a cognitive bias that makes us assume that whatever is popular is better.The problem is, once something is popular, it is very easy for it to remain popular, and it quickly becomes difficult for new things to compete, even if they are better.
    This is definitely the case with music … whatever is marketed more effectively has a much better chance of becoming “popular”, and many acts that cannot compete financially end up being ignored, even though they are often much better than the big name acts.
    Such is the case with society as a whole, in so many areas besides Google and the music industry. The Google case is sort of a microcosm of how our whole consumerist society works.

  2. I should add that there are definite exceptions to this, for example the low-budget film “Napoleon Dynamite” or the “Chocolate Rain” video on YouTube, where random things mysteriously become massively popular.

  3. Well put, Will. “Popularity” certainly has a way of self-perpetuating and the internet is speeding up and heightening this phenomenon.

    But that’s the catch-22 of the web. We love it because it allows for unprecedented access to information and enables people to create and share information, in ways that they would be unable to do through traditional methods of publishing. However, although these types of people / works are now out there on the web and have the potential to reach millions of users worldwide, the web is also working to perpetuate trends, hype and popularity, to the extent that a lot of the information is buried under the top 5 search results or 10 most viewed videos and isn’t easily visible or even accessible to the general user.

  4. Pingback: The Importance of Self-Reflection « Virtual Voice

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