Parlez vous Google?

How the world’s most popular search engine shapes knowledge

WHILE DOJ lawyers are busily arguing that the search engine behemoth Google suppresses economic competition, few scholars or pundits have paused to consider that Google is reshaping knowledge itself.

Marshall McLuhan’s adage “the medium is the message,” which first appeared in print six decades ago, persuaded us that the physical characteristics of different media – whether TV or books or libraries – each distinctly shape the knowledge they transmit.  

McLuhan argued that books — laborious to research, write and edit and expensive to publish, distribute and store — elevated knowledge that was conscientious, contemplative and aspiring to permanence. Pretending to be “the last word” on its particular topic, each book pretended to build on everything that had gone before in its particularly domain, cultivating an aura of authority and objectivity. In contrast, TV, because it was ephemeral and comprised of flashy images and soundbites, fostered cultural subjectivity, superficiality and flashiness. (You can read my arguments that different media types have profoundly shaped the trajectory of medicine here.)

In recent decades, commentators have made the obvious move of using McLuhan’s paradigm to argue that the Internet itself is yet another reality-shaping medium, and a negative one at that. For example, Nicholas Carr wrote an entire book in 2010 arguing that the Internet is making him dumber, “tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” His metaphors get wilder — “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr cites arguments by Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts, that the Internet is altering how we read and how we know. According to Carr, “Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

BUT few pundits or professors have argued that Google itself is sufficiently large and uniquely configured that it should itself be understood as a distinct medium, one that shapes the knowledge it captures and transmits. 

Google is big, bigger than most of us can imagine. Not only does Google serve more than 92% of Internet searches, it’s the world’s most frequently used website. Every day, Google sends visitors to well over 100 million different websites.  It’s even graduated to verb status — we “Google” for information.

Google isn’t just another site, it’s a mechanical vehicle that profoundly shapes the information that survives (by being read) and thrives (by being cited) in the 21st century. Google’s unique features and their effects on the shape of knowledge are distinct from those of the Internet.

The bottom line is that if a specific nugget of fact, argument or entertainment is not prominent when someone searches Google for that specific information, the nugget effectively does not exist. For example, the #1 result seen after a Google search gets four times more clicks than result #5. Links that aren’t on page 1 are rarely read.

Making matters worse, Google feeds positive and negative feedback loops. Content that is well placed on Google is read more often, which results in more links into the content from other sites and content, which in turn contributes to an even stronger position in search results.

There are an estimated 1000 factors that go into ranking well on Google and businesses that depend on Google searches for customer try to work many of those angles.

Factors include:

  • Inbound links: the number of links to content were Google’s original algorithm for determining how prominently to display a piece of content. This worked well enough until a) old (well linked) content obliterated newer content with fewers links and b) ecommerce companies started paying people to link to their key content.
  • Headlines that are both direct (answering a searchers question) and intriguing (inspiring a click)
  • Content descriptions that confirm the searcher will be rewarded for clicking the link
  • Content length

Trying to get your content high in Google search — Search Engine Optimization (SEO) — is no longer the province of geeks and webmasters. Authors and editors who aspire to disseminate ideas have to care about SEO arcana — what’s the right number of letters in a meta description tag? What keywords should the author focus on using (and how many times) in an article?

Those concerns become just as much of a job responsibility as writing a headline or a nut graf. The author or editor should ask: What’s a 1-3 phrase that captures the subject of this article? How do we summarize this message in 160 characters or less for our intended target audience? What are the most likely phrases someone would use in searching for my article? Once the right phrase(s) have been identified, what other content is there on the site that we can link to / from relating to this key phrase? What are other sites that might want to link to my article?

Some WordPress plug-ins promise to automate this process, but only the author or editor can grasp the organic goals of the content.

Is this too much work for authors or editors? Unfortunately, we’re in an age in which “speaking in Google’s grammar” is just as important as using correct English or French grammar. If you don’t play the game, your work is ignored.