Google cranks up the Consensus Engine
Google this week admitted that its staff will pick and choose what appears in its search results. It’s a historic statement – and nobody has yet grasped its significance.
Not so very long ago, Google disclaimed responsibility for its search results by explaining that these were chosen by a computer algorithm. The disclaimer lives on at Google News, where we are assured that:
The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.
A few years ago, Google’s apparently unimpeachable objectivity got some people very excited, and technology utopians began to herald Google as the conduit for a new form of democracy. Google was only too pleased to encourage this view. It explained that its algorithm “relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. ”
That Google was impartial was one of the articles of faith. For if Google was ever to be found to be applying subjective human judgment directly on the process, it would be akin to the voting machines being rigged.
For these soothsayers of the Hive Mind, the years ahead looked prosperous. As blog-aware marketing and media consultants, they saw a lucrative future in explaining the New Emergent World Order to the uninitiated. (That part has come true – Web 2.0 “gurus” now advise large media companies).
It wasn’t surprising, then, that when five years ago I described how a small, self-selected number of people could rig Google’s search results, the reaction from the people doing the rigging was violently antagonistic. Who lifted that rock? they cried.
But what was once Googlewashing by a select few now has Google’s active participation.