Google’s Still the One

The horseplay topic has probably dried up for a while (although Arthur got his shoes reset today, so I should get some saddle time this weekend, but it probably won’t be anything worth writing about); I’ve probably exhausted my quota for political ranting this week (although the reports about the slaughter in Fallujah continue to be disturbing); so I might as well fall back into the geek category. And Google is a perpetual favorite among geeky bloggers, so I might as well stick with the trend.

Some of us old farts remember the web before Google. Before Google was Alta Vista. And I remember when AltaVista came online, and suddenly we were actually able to find stuff out there in cyberspace without knowing the address. Life was good. There were a couple of other wannabes that tried to compete, but AltaVista ruled.

And then we started hearing about the upstart called Google. Maybe it was their clever name that got people’s attention. Google is reportedly a play on the number googol (1 followed by 100 zeroes), but it also rolls easily off the tongue. And, maybe more important, although I’m not sure this originally occured to the founders, it can easily be verbed. It’s common to hear people talk about Googling somebody (that kind of talk used to get you slapped); it just doesn’t have the same appeal to AltaVista someone.

Maybe the cute name accelerated Google’s acceptance, but there’s more to it than that. I have frequently ranted here about superior products, candidates, etc., that get ignored while the press and public go gaga over an inferior alternative. That’s not the case with Google; its reputation is well deserved.

There have been various reports published about search engines, comparing them based on many different criteria, and Google usually wins, although there are some others that may provide better results in some specialized niches. My own recent totally unscientific and completely biased research shows that Google rocks.

I recently created a new website, just because I’m a pathetic geek with nothing better to do, and I wanted a new email address to amuse some of my hunting buddies. Search engines work by following links from other sites that they know about, or by having sites submitted to them by webmasters eager for their 15 minutes of fame. When a new site is created, it’s like a tree falling in a forest; until something happens to make the search engines aware of its existence, it’s invisible. (Actually, there are some domain search systems that crawl the registries looking for new domain names. I got hit by one of those shortly after the site went online. But they just provide information about the domain, and not an index of the content.)

Instead of submitting my site to as many search engines as I could find, like most webmasters would do with a new site, I decided to just throw a casual link to it into a couple of blog entries, and see how long it took for the crawlers to find it.

Less than 48 hours after I posted the entry, Google read it. And, a couple of hours later, the new site logged its first visit from Google. It actually took a few more days for the index processing to take effect and make the site appear in searches. But, by the end of the week, the new site and the entries mentioning it appeared in a Google search for “bitch pack”. Interestingly, the site itself was buried down on about the fourth page of the hit list, but the entries discussing it were on page one, third or fourth out of 300+ hits. I love Google’s ranking system!

And, speaking of Google’s ranking system, it’s been a source of controversy in the news again recently, or at least in the geeky news sources. I think there’s a certain amount of voodoo in the way Google ranks hits. There have been some well known glitches, such as the famous “miserable failure” search results. It turns out that most of those are the result of collaborative efforts to spoof the system.

The latest one to hit the news is the result of a search for the single word “Jew”. The top site on that hit list is (or was) an anti-Semitic site. Google was under some pressure to remove it, but resisted because there was nothing illegal about the site, and it had “earned” its spot in the search results based on the same criteria used to rank all other sites.

Part of that ranking system is based on the number of other sites that link to a site in a certain context (which is how a bunch of dedicated people could get Bush, Carter, Clinton, etc. listed in the “miserable failure” search). Ironically, in this case, the anti-Semitic site probably got a big boost from all the sites that linked to it while talking about how disgusting it was.

Note that I’m not linking to the site, or even mentioning its name. I support Google’s decison not to remove it; I think censoring their search results would cast serious doubts on their integrity. But I’m certainly not going to give the site one more little tick mark.

And, speaking of Google and recent controversies, they’ve stirred up another hornets’ nest with their new mail service, which will scan customers’ mail and place ads in it based on the content of the mail. Even worse, they reserve the right to keep the mail in their archives as long as they want, even if the customer wants to delete it, even if the customer closes his account. This is downright scary.

I’m not the only person that thinks this is not a good thing. A California legislator even wants to make it illegal. That, in my opinion, is overkill. I certainly wouldn’t want to use the service, and I would even be leery of sending email to anyone who did use it. But since nobody is forcing anybody to use it, I think it’s just a case of “buyer beware” and not something that needs to be banned. Even sillier, the legislator’s attacking it for the wrong reason. If she was concerned about the permanent retention, I would be sympathetic, but still disagree. But her complaint is just about the ads: “We think it’s an absolute invasion of privacy. It’s like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home” I don’t want billboards in my home; I don’t want ads in my mail; but I think that’s a decision customers are perfectly capable of making for themselves. If some people are willing to have their privacy invaded in exchange for free email service, that’s their business; the government needs to butt out.

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