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The impact of search March 6, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in The Search.
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Earlier, I lamented that the first part of The Search read more as a historical primer on Google than anything else. I was disappointed that Battelle had covered much of the who, what and where, but not much of the “so what.”

After this week’s reading, I felt much more satisfied.

Chapter 7, “The Search Economy” was perhaps the most illuminating of the book. It is hard to believe that one company — a company that runs a search engine — has such an overwhelming impact on the economy. Especially for online businesses, the ability to be discovered through search can be the difference between a business’ success and failure. After reading about the case of 2bigfeet.com, it became clear that a simple tweak of a search algorithm can mean the difference in thousands of dollars in sales.

(Note: As a test, I googled 2bigfeet.com to see how they fared in search today. When looking for “big shoes,” they came up as number 4.)

Search is not just important for being discovered; in many ways, search can define who you are. For example, today, if you google “Dell,” you generally get positive results. This wasn’t always the case. Until relatively recently, if you googled “Dell,” you would get several results in the top ten about “Dell Hell.”

What is Dell Hell? The term was popularized by Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine in a series of rants against the company following repeated negative experiences with his Dell laptop. Because of Jarvis’ visibility and the popularity of his blog, this meme gained steam, links and traffic, and quickly started to rise in the search ranks.

Dell is a very visible company, and lots of people were searching for it online. What does it say to potential buyers who are researching Dell that when they input the name into Google, it returns a bunch of results about how poor the quality of the product is and how bad the customer service is? Essentially, it creates a blemished online picture of the company.

It appears that Dell worked around the system and used various SEO techniques to reclaim the prime online real estate when a user searches for Dell on Google. By creating a series of sites with unique domain names (domains that were indexed separately by Google’s crawlers), it was able to claim most of the top ten search results in Google.

As Battelle alluded, there are some ethical questions about the type of search engine strategy that Dell employed. Is it fair for a company to build a whole bunch of pages with separate domains to crowd out negative search results? Or is it a fair response to the disproportionate (and long-lasting) impact that blogs have on search?


The Search (Part I) February 18, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in The Search.
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In his book, The Search, author John Battelle poignantly points out that when advanced technology works well, it is like magic — the user doesn’t know how it works, but is impressed that it does.

Much like We the Media catalogues the rise of citizen journalism, the first half of The Search reads as a history of the search function. It describes what it is, how it works, and who the key players in the world of Search are (namely Google).

In this case, understanding the history is especially important. Search in America and around the world has become ubiquitous, but the vast majority of people are unaware of how the “magic” works. They have never heard of terms such as “page rank” or “crawler,” but it is terms like these that make search — and the vast knowledge it provides — possible.

It was especially interesting to read about the CEO of Google coming to the realization that his company is not just a technology company. Google truly is, in every sense of the words, a media company. It just isn’t media in the 20th century sense.

While our assigned reading only covered the first half of Battelle’s book, I still ended this week’s reading feeling empty. The history is important, but Battelle leaves out much of the so what factor in his writing.

Yes, it is interesting to know how search works and how Google rose to become the media empire it is today. But what is missing from the reading thus far is the following question: what does this mean? How does Google impact our society? Is it a positive or negative thing that online search has become such an integral part of our digital culture?

As a final thought, I am reminded of my first thought when opening the cover of the book and reading the title of the first chapter. “The Database of Intentions.” It deeply reminded me of a flash video I had seen called EPIC 2014.

If you haven’t seen EPIC 2014, you should check it out. The video was created a few years ago by the Museum of Media History, and outlines a fictional history of the rise of a digital media empire that allows users to maintain their own database of knowledge. In this fictional future, Google merges with Amazon to create “Googlezon,” a media company which ultimately takes out the New York Times (by using advanced search combined with Amazon’s preference recommendation to deliver personalized news for every person on Earth.) It is an entertaining video, and relates well to Battelle’s discussion of the overwhelmingly fast growth of Google.

Is a Googlezon in the future? Only time will tell. For now, I hope that the remainder of The Search delves deeper into some of the societal implications of search. The book thus far has been informativ; I just hope it goes beyond historical documentation.