Google and the Culture of Searching
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Categories: Modern

Google and the Culture of Searching

saying everything’s on the internet is great if you know how to use the internet. People who say it’s all on Google probably haven’t spent a lot of time watching people try to find what they want on Google. It’s challenging. There’s a lot of syntax to know, you’ve got know how to use a mouse, you’ve got to understand clicking, what’s a tab, what happens when I do this that and the other (thing), and there really isn’t a social institution dedicated to helping you figure it out. And then, that’s just for digitally divided folks, but for average folks who know how to use a computer, they still need to know how to be discerning about the information they get.

Jessamyn West, interview with Vermont Public Radio, 27 May 2016 https://medium.com/tilty/libraries-information-access-and-democracy-85e213086d22

“Don’t be evil” or not, Google has a great deal of power over Internet culture. One example is the way that Google discourages searchers from marking up their search (with quotes, Boolean logic, restrictions like “only from the following domain,” etc.) Google Advanced Search was removed first from their main page and then from their list of other Google tooks on google.com, and their algorithm takes more and more freedom to ignore quotes and deliver sites with only partial matches. Rather than encouraging users to become skilled searchers, it teaches them to type quickly and trust the algorithm.

I moved away from Google Search in 2012 when I learned about DuckDuckGo. And yet, DuckDuckGo itself tries to imitate Google’s “one field, negligible markup” format. Firefox also tries to erase the distinction between the search bar and the address bar. University library databases and Worldcat have made it harder and harder to search by title and author. When I search for a particular book in Innsbruck, I usually get a mess of reviews, citations, other works, and occasionally the book in question buried in the middle. I can’t believe that the librarians think that this is the best approach. But because it is most people’s default way for searching for information in a browser, Google Search has created expectations. And the choices which they make for one audience with a very wide range of education, age, seriousness, and so on are forced onto search in other contexts, even if those contexts are very different.

So I immediately went to my university’s terrible new library catalog (which has ditched entirely the old card-catalog derived system of author/title/subject searches and is instead trying to compete with Google for boolean searches, and failing), and even that craptastic software for our minimalist collection of books turned up half a dozen bios of (US senator Margaret Chase) Smith published in the past two decades or so. (One was a juvenile biography, the rest were scholarly bios.) The period 1995-2004 was a rich period for MCS biographies, which were probably inspired by the turn-of-the-century frenzy to wrap up the twentieth century and put a bow on the package.

There’s a rich irony here that the Great Historian of Great Men who is so desperately worried about the tragic ignorance of the Kids These Days can’t have bothered to enter “Margaret Chase Smith biography” at books.google.com

https://historiann.com/2017/05/27/history-will-repay-your-love-you-dont-have-to-be-a-jerk/

Moreover, Google Search creates the impression that research is not and should not be a skill. Others have talked about specific aspects of this: how Google results tend to be monolingual (because coders from California rarely read several languages), how their cataloguing of digitalized books is a disaster, etc. Academics are slowly responding with projects like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Encyclopedia Iranica which have the rigour and judgement of traditional print references and the accessibility of websites. But as someone who has invested a great deal of time and money in learning the art of research, I find the suggestion that it is trivial and deserves to be passed off to a mindless algorithm disturbing.

Meanwhile, other parts of the Internet have been showing that you can design a web interface which educates users as they use it. Most forum software shows posters the marked-up version of their post, but also has a set of buttons which let them select text and click to highlight it or insert a link. Eventually, and with a little bit of advice from peers, most posters learn how to mark up their posts in bbcode by hand. Learning bbcode is part of learning the culture of forums.

I don’t think that Google meant to dumb down searching for students and academics. They are trying to make a search engine which works for ten-year-olds and octagenarians, people with multiple PhDs and people with an eighth-grade education. But they chose to design an interface which deskills users instead of encouraging them to educate themselves. I don’t think that Google is especially evil. But I will be very glad when they break up and several smaller companies take their place.

I pulled this out of my drafts file after a Mastodon post by @juliana@eldritch.cafe I don’t have a job with a salary. If you want me to keep writing for the Internet, please, support this site.

(written circa 2017, scheduled 2 July 2022)

Edit 2022-08-07: added link to Mastdon post instead of just a username and server

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