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15 July 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Google hogged by blogs
By linking to insubstantial and random content, personal websites are strangling search engines.

by Sandy Starr

'Google works because it relies on the millions of individuals posting websites to determine which other sites offer content of value.'

So boasts the massively popular search engine Google, in the corporate information section of its website, under the heading 'Democracy on the web works'. Google employs a number of closely-guarded algorithms to come up with results for web searches, but foremost among them is PageRank, which takes into account the number of links to a web page as a measure of the likelihood of that page being relevant to the user: 'Instead of counting direct links, PageRank interprets a link from Page A to Page B as a vote for Page B by Page A. PageRank then assesses a page's importance by the number of votes it receives.' (1)

Since Google was launched in 1998, PageRank has given it an edge over rival search engines that has seen it become a market leader, and a near-ubiquitous resource for web users. By and large, the greater the number of people who have expressed interest in a web page by linking to it, the more likely it has proven to be that the web page will also be of interest to you.

Not everyone is happy with PageRank, though. Google Watch, a website dedicated to monitoring and criticising Google, complains that far from PageRank being 'democracy on the web', it is in fact 'anti-democratic, in that already-powerful pages are mathematically granted extra power to anoint other pages as powerful'. According to Google Watch, 'in a democracy, every person has one vote. In PageRank, rich people get more votes than poor people' (2).

In other words, web content that has been deemed popular by Google will become more popular, because users are more likely to encounter it, while less popular web content will languish in obscurity.

This is a tautological and confused criticism, but it does point to the limits of using the concept of 'democracy' as an analogy for what Google does. Just about anyone with a computer and a connection can publish web content - insofar as there is democracy on the web, that is what it is.

What Google does, and does very well, is help you to sift through that mass of unedited content, to find whatever it is you're interested in. Google does this by making the perfectly reasonable assumption that your interests have something in common with those of other people. PageRank is not an insurmountable obstacle, but rather is a challenge and an opportunity.

Another misguided criticism levelled at Google is that it is responsible for 'Googlewashing' - a term recently coined by online publication the Register to refer to the Orwellian redefinition of words and concepts, as a result of the ranking of content in Google search results. The arcane example originally given by the Register was the term 'second superpower', which apparently was transformed from being a term for the coalition opposing the war on Iraq to being a term for empowered internet users (3).

Blogs are assumed to be beyond criticism
What concerns about 'Googlewashing' really smack of is people whining that the ideas they publish on the web are not as popular as they would like them to be, or that they aren't properly understood - as though the court of public opinion is somehow inadequate as a test of one's ideas. But it is incumbent upon people with ideas to communicate them clearly and to convince others of them; it is not the responsibility of search engines to keep ideas pure (an Orwellian notion, if there ever was one).

If much current criticism of Google is misguided, there is, however, one area where these criticisms have some validity: namely the ranking of weblogs in search engine results. Weblogs, or 'blogs' - personal websites in diary format, where individuals publish comment and link to other web content - have surged in number and popularity over the past year, and depending on who you listen to, are supposedly doing everything from revolutionising journalism to reinvigorating politics (4).

Such claims may be far-fetched, but blogs are doing one thing successfully - putting a spanner in Google's works. In the words of one astute blogger, blogs have 'subverted a search engine people liked because it was meritocratic about information, and made it about themselves and their narcissism' (5).

The content of blogs is frequently (but not always) insubstantial and solipsistic, consisting of little more than links to web content (often on other blogs) and offhand, informal comments. Since there exists an entire 'blogosphere' of blogs linking to one another, the fact that blog content is insubstantial does not prevent it from ranking highly in Google search results. As Wired News reports, 'with no deliberate effort, many dedicated weblog publishers are finding their blogs rank high on search results for topics that, oftentimes, they claim to know practically nothing about' (6).

The influential blogger Doc Searls has come up with an interesting defence of blogs in response to these claims of 'blog noise', suggesting that the problem can be attributed to 'a situation where one particular type of highly numerous journal has entirely exposed archives while less common (though perhaps on the whole more authoritative) others do not' (7).

In other words, if a greater number of professional and traditional media outlets were to make their content freely available and easily searchable on the web, then their content might fare better than blog content in Google search results. There is some truth to this.

But blog noise isn't just a matter of bloggers linking to insubstantial content on one another's blogs - although that is bad enough, when it causes you to have to wade through the blogosphere or through Google search result pages before you find something worthwhile. A worse problem than this is blogs linking to random content, without even a pretence that they are linking to content because it is of specific interest.

One common example of this is the practice of 'blogrolling', where a constantly changing and/or randomly generated list of blogs is included as a menu on the homepage, or on all pages, of a blog. Because PageRank interprets a link as a vote for popularity (and hence for relevance), this has the effect of artificially promoting a coterie of blogs to the top of Google rankings, for no other reason than that these bloggers know, or know of, one another.

Blog culture has made links and idle comment into ends in themselves
This is not a million miles away from other practices used to artificially inflate Google rankings, such as 'spamdexing' and 'Googlebombing' - practices which Google has been known to penalise websites heavily for, by demoting them in search results. But Google does not seem to penalise blogs, leading critics to infer some sort of conspiracy between Google and A-list bloggers.

In truth, it is more likely that blogs fail to be penalised simply because they are assumed to be beyond criticism - after all, how could benevolent linking among a community of bloggers possibly be equated with the spamdexing and Googlebombing of unscrupulous businesses?

The waters of this debate were muddied in February 2003, by Google's acquisition of Pyra Labs, developers of the popular blogging tool Blogger. Speculation as to Google's motives for the acquisition have been rife - is Google embracing the (supposedly) revolutionary potential of blogging, or is it hatching a sinister plot to infiltrate and control the blogosphere? Things became even more confusing when it was subsequently announced that Google would create a search tool specifically for blogs, prompting unfounded speculation that Google would tackle the blog noise problem by excluding blogs from its default search results (8).

It remains to be seen whether the blog noise problem is going to get any worse, and how Google is going to tackle it. But one thing should be made clear - while Google is far from being a perfect company (9), and while there are undoubtedly some good bloggers who publish quality blogs, in this instance it is the bloggers who are at fault.

PageRank is a wonderful innovation, which has been of considerable benefit to web users over the past few years, regardless of what Google's more irrational critics say. The ideal behind PageRank, of combining a faith in the judgement of others with a desire to make high-quality content easily and publicly available, is a laudable one. But this ideal has been shot down by blogs.

The self-obsessed nature of many blogs, the incestuous relationships between them, the frenetic rate at which they are updated, and their obsessive use of links, have distorted the snapshots of the web that Google gives us. Blog culture has made links and idle comment into ends in themselves, irrespective of the merit or relevance of the content being linked to or commented upon. It is this failing of blogs, not any failing of PageRank, that has meant that the assumptions which made PageRank work so effectively are no longer tenable.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Gone to the blogs, by Brendan O'Neill

Blog eats blog, by Bill Thompson

(1) Google today, on the Google website

(2) And then there were four: why we target Google, on the Google Watch website; and PageRank: Google's original sin, Daniel Brandt, Google Watch, August 2002

(3) See See Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed...in 42 days, Andrew Orlowski, Register, 3 April 2003; and Google washes whiter, Andrew Orlowski, Register, 10 April 2003

(4) See Gone to the blogs, by Brendan O'Neill

(5) Clearing out the blogwebs, Michael Hall, Pudding Time!, 9 May 2003

(6) Search results clogged by blogs, Joanna Glasner, Wired News, 16 May 2003

(7) Maybe it's about the ratio of linkable to unlinkable pages, Doc Searls, 17 May 2003

(8) See Google takes the plunge, Bobbie Johnson, Guardian, 3 March 2003; Google to fix blog noise problem, Andrew Orlowski, Register, 9 May 2003; Blogging's too good for them, Paul Carr, Guardian, 9 June 2003

(9) See Googlelashing, Sandy Starr, Tech Central Station Europe, 3 July 2003

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