The Impact of Search Algorithms on Our Everyday Lives
Someone suggests, “Just Google it,” referring to the Internet search engine. This expression has been used frequently in the media over the past few years. In fact, it’s so prevalent that it’s entered the language of causality. And how do you respond when someone else adds that instruction? You go online and do what any good student would do and type in a few various keywords. A page of “answers” appears on your device a few seconds later, and you think you’re good to go.
That last question can’t be answered without first answering the preceding ones, so let’s take a short trip back in time, say, twenty years, to the “old” you, before social media and technology became the source of everything, for better or worse. Without Facebook, of course. Twitter did not exist. To say, “Just Google it,” would have been as ridiculous as saying, “Fly up to the moon and ask the guru of solutions for a response.” To get information, you had to go to the library, which meant taking a trip (either by car or foot) and carrying several heavy, perfect-bound volumes to a table. Alternatively, you could peruse the information on microfiche if you had access to sufficiently big libraries. And who didn’t appreciate the visual
treat of miles of news articles and images zipping past your eyes at breakneck speeds as you sifted through them to find a particular entry? Not only did you run out of Dramamine, but you also had to deal with some fairly severe rigor. It would take days just to locate one piece of evidence to back up your claim. Let’s just say it was a little more challenging to find answers, what with there being no real way to verify your finding without extensive trial and tribulation.
It’s true that we no longer have to “search” for knowledge in an “intellectual vacuum” at the library; instead, we can socialize with others while doing so online. If you need quick answers to your queries, it’s no longer impossible to reach the moon. How could the fact that we no longer have to spend hours upon hours researching to find answers and can instead find them in minutes (at most) not affect who we are as a culture? It seems necessary.
The pursuit of ever-faster “answer-finding” is not without its share of gloom, of course. As we improve search engines and produce more easily accessible knowledge, we come up against a fairly eerie dynamic that wasn’t present before.
An alternative to the advice to “just Google it” is to proceed with care. To whom much is entrusted, much is expected in return. In this era of information and speed (or even haste), a warning along the lines of “we’ll give you the info, but you better use it carefully” is parred for the course. But I’ll wager you didn’t realize the precise biblical allusion is Luke 12:48! I bet you didn’t know that over 114,000,000 results came up in the Google search I ran to reference the source. 114,000,000 hits!
Truth be told, the cultural, psychological, and consumer-oriented underpinnings of the instantaneous results we’re provided go far beyond our wildest dreams. In addition, it is overlooked in favor of skipping to “the bottom line,” regardless of how arbitrary that number may be. And that’s probably the greatest trap we could fall into as technology doubles every 1.5 years, millions of search results pop up before our eyes, and we accept them as…well, results. Many times, the “answers” we are provided aren’t based on the thorough investigation or the kind of painstaking teamwork and intellectual rigor that one might hope to find when consulting a library for information. In its place, the idea that most of our findings originate from a world of amateur answers is not far-fetched. Or even worse (yes, I’m going there), from the people whose job it is to create outcomes that lead to a buy.
Keep Wikipedia in mind. It’s based on the idea that regular folks like you, me, and the person next door know everything there is to know about any topic. The collective intelligence foundation upon which it stands. And, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t put as much thought into my response as I should have. In all likelihood, I looked it up on Wikipedia.
Ask any employee at Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo and they will tell you that there is both a science and an art to creating search results. But what purpose does science serve? So I can get some clarification or be prodded into action? How will that change the way I behave and react in the future? In conclusion, is that something the creators of search engines even think about? You can’t be an idiot and say no. But it’s just as naive to assume that nobody has any skin in the game when it comes to the evolution of our search engine universe. As an alternative, “it” is concerned with improving outcomes in order to increase revenue, and so on.
As a marketer, I am well aware of the complexities involved in developing search engine “results,” and I can assure you that my main directive is to direct you to my client. There’s definitely nothing bad about that, but it makes you wonder. How artificial search results are compared to natural ones. Since effective marketing can make confusing topics easier to understand and locate, I feel safe bringing them up. However, less scrupulous “marketers” can use the same methods to direct web traffic to less than helpful solutions.
I appreciate the value of the social movement paradigm for gaining access to previously unattainable information. However, it’s important to keep in mind that nearly all of the websites that rank highly in Google’s 114 million listings are probably trying to trick me into visiting their site, stealing my personal information, or installing malware on my computer. And I hate to be a downer, but I rely on that very source knowledge (Google or not) to find solutions. Obviously, I’m not the only one who relies on it.
If you’re the type to tell your pals to “just Google it,” keep in mind that every question you ask and every response you get has the potential to change your life. You’re not just looking for information on dog health or movie times; you’re also curious about how to discover love and cope with loss. The Bible warns that whoever is given a lot must also be prepared to offer a lot. Before you hit “search” on Google the next time, stop and ask yourself how your “search” will affect your life, your society, and your intellect.
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