Thursday, September 9, 2010

Google Instant - Just Say No

We always thought it was the government we should be watching out for. But it turns out that Big Brother has assumed a form that George Orwell would have had trouble imagining when he wrote 1984 shortly after World War II - an internet search engine by the name of Google.

Google.com is the number-one ranked site on the internet according to Alexa.com. Google's share of the search market was just under 63% as of July, 2010, far outstripping its closest competitors Yahoo (19%) and Microsoft's Bing (13%). It is the 300-lb gorilla in the room that no-one can ignore, and it has just thrown a big wad of techno-poop at the lesser primates in the room. The problem is that ordinary web users like you and I are getting splattered at the same time.

Google Instant is the new addition to Google's search tool that is being touted by the company as a great time saver for searchers. If you haven't had it rammed down your throat yet - it's not exactly subtle - you soon will. It presents search results in your browser window immediately as you begin to type in your search query. Google isn't prepared to wait for you to finish your thought. It is much cleverer than you and already knows what you should be searching for. It will show you what it thinks you should see even before you finish typing everything you planned to enter. It is like a boorish interlocutor who insists on completing your every sentence, assuming that he knows what you want to say. He doesn't. You have a mind of your own, and common politeness in a civilized and open society affords you the opportunity to express your thoughts completely without being interrupted. Well, not any more it doesn't - unless you switch off Google Instant. We should be thankful, I suppose, that we actually have the option to do that.

This innovation has the geeks all aflutter. As Google employee Matt Cutts explains on his blog, Google proudly proclaims that:
If everyone uses Google Instant globally, we estimate this will save more than 3.5 billion seconds a day. That’s 11 hours saved every second. With over a billion searches a day and over a billion users searching each week, that adds up to 350 million hours of user time saved a year. That’s 500+ human lifespans saved a year by this feature if everyone used it.
What an utterly irrelevant statistic. We might as well talk about how much the production of the greenhouse gas methane could be reduced if cows farted one less time each day. Who the hell cares if searching takes a fraction of a second less? What impact will that have on your life? Will it give you enough time to write that novel you've always talked about?

Why You Should be Worried About Google

Did you know that Google stores every search query you make? This information is not kept indefinitely for reasons of data storage capacity, but if government authorities sub poena your search history Google has to give it to them. If you aren't already, you need to be thinking twice about what that history is going to contain.

Google uses your search history to deliver personalized search. This has been happening for a while. It used to be most noticeable if you searched the web while logged in to one of your Google accounts, such as Gmail. But many users are starting to see this phenomenon even when they're not logged in. This is because Google knows your IP address - the location of your computer on the internet. Of course, they say they do this to help you find the information you want. It's all in your best interests, you see. Nothing to worry about....

Search suggestions have also been around for a while. These appear in a little window under the search box as you type in your search query. These suggestions supposedly show similar search terms that other web users are looking for, and are intended to give you ideas you might not have thought of by yourself. All very helpful, and innocuous, right?

Google Instant takes this to the next level - a highly intrusive, obnoxious level that insults our intelligence and manipulates us in an unacceptable way. The related search queries that Google deems relevant to your needs are not merely suggested; no, they are positively forced upon you whether or not you request them by completing a query and hitting 'enter.' Hitting 'enter' is so 20th Century! We can save you the trouble of moving your fingers that great distance. There is no need for the hippocampal region of your brain to strain itself formulating the intention that precedes motor action. No, we will do it all for you. We will tell you what you need to know; we are omniscient and telepathic; we predict your wants and we deliver them to you as your faithful servant.

Yes, I am laying it on a bit thick. You see, it is not just the rudeness or the arrogance of Google Instant that pisses me off. It's that Google is deliberately manipulating the generation of search queries when its job should be merely to deliver search results. The terms it suggests - whether based on actual popularity at some arbitrary starting point or on other criteria chosen at Google's sole discretion, such as, say, potential to deliver advertising revenue from Google Adwords - will enjoy an artificial boost in popularity. It will be impossible to tell whether any given search term is popular because people are genuinely interested in that term, or simply because Google has sent people there. And the great irony here is that Google will have no way of knowing this either, because despite their own opinion of themselves, they really can't read your mind. Going forward, then, how will Google be able to say that a particular search query (or keyword, as marketers call it) is really popular and therefore deserving of presentation to the surfing public? The great danger here is that searchers will be fed a progressively deteriorating stew of artificially popular search results that bear a similarly diminishing relationship to their actual information wants. Gorilla poop, if you will.



If you haven't read 1984, you are perfect fodder for thought control. If you choose to educate yourself by purchasing 1984 through links on this site, your purchase will help support this blog. Thank you.

5 comments:

  1. Great post! Followed you over here from PPG's blog, hope you don't get taken down too soon. :) I FB liked it, too!

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  2. Thanks, Kelly. They won't take the blog down because it's loaded with Adsense ads.

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  3. You nailed what it was that bugged me the most about this. That somehow they know what is better for us than we do ourselves - I don't think so.

    I do think that Google instant is purely eye-candy and doesn't really make them a better search engine. They got popular on their quality and simplicity. Two things that they continue to get away from, so I'm confident something better will be along any time now. Maybe social search on places like Facebook will make search engines obsolete. Who knows. Anyway, great blog...and good luck! :):)

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  4. Thanks Jayne. As has been noted elsewhere, there's a huge party going on in the Bing offices right now.

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  5. I guess you really took the suggestion seriously, because I've just read your comment on Pot Pie Girls Google Instant post. :)

    Anyway, those are good points. We have yet to see it's effects on marketers. I like your librarian metaphor by the way, that was hilarious. I too would be taken aback if someone follows me around the library. Lol.

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