28 December 2006


Eighteen million people can't be wrong

No matter how much you and I might like Google, the fact is that Google has some very serious problems with it comes to finding content. More specifically, if you're looking for the "right" answer, or if you're attempting to do any serious research, Google is likely to fail you miserably.

The flaw lies in Google's strength: social algorithms. Social algorithms are processes in which decisions are made by watching and following the majority of people in a community. If blogger.com tends to be the place people go to create blogs, then a social algorithm will see blogger.com as "better." When a search engine is managed by a social algorithm, a website might appear first in search results not because of the quality of site, but rather because a larger number of people treated the site as if were of higher quality. In other words, social algorithms equate "majority" with "best," something that often looks right but actually is patently untrue.

When you perform a search at Google.com, your results are sorted based on majority behavior and little else. For simple questions about anything -- as well as complex questions about cultural issues, for which "lots of people" is critical -- frequently the majority opinion is rather close to what you want -- which is why Google is so successful. But the gap between "close to what you want" and "accurate" is an invisible one, and that makes it insidious and dangerous.

For example, search for "Seth Maislin." The first hit is my website. The second hit is this blog. The third hit is an interview I did for O'Reilly & Associates in July 1999. An investigation of why these are the top three sites is rather interesting. First of all, these are the only results in which my name actually appears in the title; the fourth link and beyond have my name in the document, but not the title. Second, my website appears at the top not because it's the definitive website about "Seth Maislin," but because Google knows of 24 people linking to it. In comparison, the only person who ever created a link to this blog is me -- a number far less than 24! The same goes for the O'Reilly interview, except that the single linker isn't even a valid site any more: it's broken. The popularity of my home page (in comparison to this blog, for example) is why it's a better hit for my name. But if you folks out there started to actually link to this blog, that would change.

You should look into the search results for the word "Jew." A website known as JewWatch.com, an offensive and inflammatory collection of antisemitic content, had appeared as the number-one result at Google.com for this one-word query. This happened because a large number of supporters of this site tended to build links to it; then, those were were outraged or amused also linked to it within their protestations. In the end, the social algorithms at Google recognized how popular (i.e., "linked to") this site was, and in response rated it very highly -- in fact, rated it first -- compared to all other websites with the word "Jew" in the title. Eventually, those who were enraged by this content fought back by asking as many people as possible to link somewhere else -- specifically, the Wikipedia definition of Jew -- just as I have here. Over time, more people linked to Wikipedia than to JewWatch, and so the latter dropped into second place at Google. This process of building networks of links in order to influence Google's social algorithm is called "Google bombing." In other words, when the people who hated the site acted together in a large group, Google's social algorithms responded.

(By the way, you'll notice that I do not create a link to the offensive site. I see no reason to contribute to its success.)

Do you see the problem? The success of Google bombing is analogous to the squeaky wheel metaphor, that the loudest complainer gets the best service. Social algorithms reward the most popular, regardless of whether they deserve it. JewWatch made it to the top because it was popular first; Wikipedia's definition moved to the top because those offended banded together to demonstrate even more loudly. And in the end, there's no reason for me to think either of these links is best.

Whether popularity is a good thing or a bad thing is often subjective. In language, some people lament the existence of the word ain't, while others applaud its existence as an inevitable sign of change; either way, the word is showing up in our dictionaries because more and more people are using it. But I'm not talking about language; I'm talking about truth.

Do you think vitamin C is good at preventing colds? Well, it isn't; there have been no studies demonstrate its effectiveness, but there have been studies that show it makes no real difference. (It's believed that vitamin C will shorten the length of a cold, but studies are still inconclusive.) But after a doctor popularized the idea of vitamin megadosing, our entire culture suddenly believes taking the vitamin will keep you extra healthy. Untrue.

Do you know why "ham and eggs" is considered a typical American breakfast? Because an advertising executive in the pork industry used Freudian psychology to convince people to eat ham for breakfast. He did it by asking American doctors if they thought hearty breakfasts were a good thing (which they did); the ad-man then asked if ham were a hearty food. Voila: ham, sausage, and bacon are American breakfast staples, and the continental breakfast vanished from our culture.

In both of these examples, majority belief trumps the truth. And look at the arguments about global warming! I won't repeat the arguments laid out by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, but his argument is that as long as enough people insist that global warming isn't true, its dangers will remain unheeded. In fact, I'm not even going to argue here whether global warming is a real thing or not; it doesn't matter what I believe. What matters is that the debate over global warming isn't a fight over the facts. Instead, it's a shouting match, in which the majority wins. Right now, so many influential people have argued that it doesn't exist (or isn't such a big deal) that very little has been done in this country in response to its possible existence. But as more and more people start to believe it's at least possible, it's becoming a reality. Doesn't that just drive you nuts? Why are the facts behind global warming driven by democracy? Can't something be true even if no one believes in it?

One last look at this "majority rules" concept, only this time let's avoid politics and focus on simple word spelling. If you search for the word millennium, correctly spelled with two Ls and two Ns, you'll get about 54 million hits at Google (English-language pages only). If you search for the word millenium, misspelled with two Ls and only one N, you'll get 18 million hits. Twenty-five percent of all websites have this misspelling in them! For content that's published, that by its very nature is biased toward having only correct spellings, this error rate is monstrous! But does Google let you know that millenium is misspelled? Does it ask you if you "meant to type millennium?" No! After all, Google considers the misspelled word correct.

I mean, eighteen million people can't be wrong, right?

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