Thursday, July 17, 2003

stevenberlinjohnson.com: Googleholes

stevenberlinjohnson.com: Googleholes "I am getting flamed to high heaven in Slate's Fray for a piece of mine they just posted talking about some of the built-in limitations of the Google PageRank system. The general critique seems to be that I don't understand how to refine a search, which I guess I should have made clear in the piece itself. (I do, for the record. I also think Google is absolutely brilliant.) But as you can see if you follow the link, it's not a piece about how to use Google more effectively; it's a piece about ways that Google's system implicitly pushes us in certain directions, which makes it less like an authoritative reference source, and more like an op-ed page. (Nothing wrong with that, just something we should keep in mind.) Normally I quote from the articles themselves in this blog, but today I think I'll quote from a followup comment that I posted in the Fray:
The point I'm trying to make is that all other things being equal, Google will skew results towards online stores and pages linked to by the blogging community. (And away from books towards articles, though that's a slightly different point.) You can make things less than equal by doing more refined searches, but that doesn't mean the skew isn't important. This reminds me in a way of the old debate about Microsoft controlling the desktop -- the Microsoft folks would always say, "people can install their own application icons on the desktop so what's the big deal if our icons come as part of the default setup?" The point is that default biases in widely used tools have real effects, even if there are relatively easy ways around them.

Here's a more real-world example of the bias at work, which is equally self-reflexive: search on "steven johnson emergence." The top ten results are either from blogs, Amazon product pages, or the O'Reilly Network (very big with the open source and blogging communities.) Now, Emergence was reviewed by the NY Times, the Economist, the Village Voice, the UK Guardian, and dozens of other major publications with huge readerships. But Google doesn't think those results are as relevant as blogger reviews. Now, I'm a blogger, and I love the blogging community, so I think in a way that this is not necessarily bad news. But it's hard not to see it as a kind of bias.
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