Google and The Straits Times

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Google and The Straits Times

By Abhijit Nag

Google and The Straits Times

In a way Google has become more like The Straits Times.

When did you last see a Google bomb embarrassing a top leader? Remember when you typed “miserable failure” in the search box, George Bush showed up on the results page? That was back in 2007. There have been other Google bombs since but nothing that made such a buzz.

I recall an Australian was handed over to the police at Changi airport after trouble on a Tiger Airways flight in January but was subsequently let off. I first read about the incident not on Google News but on another website. It was reported by The Straits Times after making headlines in Australia.

Google seems to be cleaning up its act, guarding not only against Google bombs but also sanitizing the content. Google’s Blogger, for example, does not show the same content in every country. If India objects to a blog, that won’t be shown there but elsewhere.

Google, which celebrated its 15th birthday on Friday, is no longer what it was. I was underwhelmed when I first saw it. The site looked so bare – just a search box on a white web page.

My Yahoo was my favourite website then, a personal home page with magically updated feeds from my favourite news sources – Yahoo News, BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times. I could read them all for free.

My Yahoo seemed to offer so much more than Google —  a white page with just a search box. How mistaken I was. Now we can hardly do without Google.

Google has not only grown and diversified, offering almost every online tool from email to web analytics, but changed fundamentally.

No advertisements were allowed on Google when it was launched. Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote a research paper while at Stanford where they said that “some advertisers attempt to gain people’s attention by taking measures meant to mislead automated search engines”.

In the year 2000, however, Google began selling advertisements associated with search keywords. The ads were text-based and so less obtrusive than the banner ads on Yahoo and other sites.

“The ultimate search engine,” said Page, “would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.”

If you want to know about Taj Mahal the American singer, you don’t want search results showing Taj Mahal the famous marble mausoleum in Agra.

Google introduced personalized search in 2005. “By personalizing your results based on your search history, we hope to deliver you the most useful, relevant content for your search,” said Google.

Personalized search can be useful and when I use Google News, instead of the standard Singapore edition, I prefer a personalized version which gives me more content.

The problem is Google has extended personalization beyond search and the Google News site.

Eli Pariser says in his book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You:

“Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results… But since December 2009, this is no longer true. Now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular – and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.”

Google’s algorithms are secret. That makes it less transparent than, say, The Straits Times. With The Straits Times, you know what you are likely to get. But you can’t predict what you will get when you google. The algorithms are secret to prevent manipulation of the search results, but it means Google works in mysterious ways.

“Is Google making us stupid?” asked the writer Nicholas Carr in a famous article. I don’t think so, but the general knowledge quizzes I used to love when there was no World Wide Web seem less relevant now because you don’t have to remember all that information any more — you can get it on the Net.

I wonder, however, about what the internet is doing to language. Books enriched language, wrote Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows, while on the internet you skip and jump. People don’t read but scan online, it is said.

Bloggers are told to write simply for easy reading. Simplicity is fine, but there should also be  sensuous writers like John Updike and Lawrence Durrell whose words you have to linger over to appreciate their beauty. Unfortunately, that kind of slow, leisurely reading is not what we do on the internet, where we want information fast and relevant.

“Google updates search engine to answer questions more like a human”, reported The Huffington Post as Google celebrated its 15thbirthday. The new algorithm, called Hummingbird,  will try to match the meanings of queries with content on the internet instead of matching keywords as Google originally did, reported Reuters and The New York Times. Google said it made the changes because users are asking increasingly long and complex questions and searching Google more often on mobile phones with voice search.

So Google is responding to us. No wonder the information it provides is getting more personalized, less comprehensive. Are you interested in what I had for lunch?