Where Do You Rank on Google's Algorithm
This article was written by David Soskin and Jim Rice.
Each contributed equally.
Every decision we make has an effect.
And that’s the beautiful thing about the Internet.
It appears to hold us accountable for our actions; it appears to empower an emerging meritocracy.
For example, a talented and driven 13-year-old living in relative poverty could read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye online; he or she could learn to code using the Kahn academy; learn to become a gymnast using YouTube; or join a community of professional photographers on Instagram.
However, this “free” education also has a cost.
In our current economy, the primary payer of this cost - big business - has a conflict of interest.
Even if we posit that there is no singular “truth” in our hyperlinked, hyperpaced digital culture, we still need access to good quality data to obtain an accurate result.
Question for the reader:
When you Google the phrase, “best laptop 2017,” how likely are you to see the best laptops at the top of the page?
The reason is that your results are determined by Google’s algorithm (hyperlink).
Google’s algorithm may contain more than 500 variables (hyperlink). Several of these variables represent what most of us think of as accurate or fair. For example, there are “organic variables,” based on the number of views a web page has had. Page hits accumulate to be ranked by Google into a page rank. Effective companies like Apple, Paypal, Google, and Amazon tend to have high “PageRanks” (PRs) because we find ourselves using them all the time. Why would you spend two hours shopping at the grocery store when you could do it in two minutes using Amazon? But PRs have a precarious weakness. What if your competitor invested money in technology and hired a team of 15-year-old geniuses, who were smart enough to hack Google? What if they then inserted an Internet Bot into the Google ecosystem that clicked on your competitor’s home page every second? You could be a high quality dress maker but if your competitor has one of these Internet Bots, his or her store, his or her services will be at the top of Google’s search results and your store, your potentially higher quality services will be below it.
Google has also collected all of your social, economic, and demographic information. They have access to your cookies, your browser history, your location, your contacts, your applications, your calendar, and probably all the information that you have locked away in a literal or metaphorical safe e.g. your social security number, your financials, etc. Knowing where you live and what kinds of clothes you tend to buy allows Google to show you a cool pair of jeans at a retailer near you; it also makes it less likely you will discover a new type of denim, a new shade of blue, or an alternative to jeans, unless you scroll way down on your google search results.
There are two even bigger concerns you should have about Google’s algorithm:
1. It’s private.
Google had a right to patent their intellectual property. However, now that we all use google shouldn’t there be some external party who regulates them?
How would you feel if you bought a new Tesla, and Elon Musk refused to let you open the hood (do Teslas even have hoods?... but you know what we mean). What if the Tesla broke down and you couldn’t drive to work? Would you still be okay with no one except for Tesla looking under the hood? The process of patenting is fundamentally opposed to a true empirical trial (hyperlink). In medicine, it would be the equivalent of saying only the company who owns and manufactures a new medication can see the clinical data, which reveals its effects and side effects. The government and the public would never let that happen.
2. Advertising companies can buy data in the form of ads, which will then be added as a variable to the algorithm. These variables are likely "weighted," meaning their influence on the algorithm’s result is increased based on how much the company buys. Let’ go back to a clothing example. You’re a B+ dress maker. The grade A is equal to a bespoke dress from Italy, and a B is equal to a good American company like J Crew or Anthropology. Over the next five to ten years, buying habits shift toward predominantly online purchasing (if we don’t destroy the world first with all the free returns). The B quality American companies have been buying the most Ads and become an A in visibility according to Google’s Ad-weighted algorithm. The A company is still in A in quality but drops to a B or C in visibility. Gradually sales decline, and they go out of business. Your company, the B+, suffers the same fate. And several big companies, which were previously Cs and Ds look like they are As based on their place at the top of the Google Algorithm.
We are reminded of the flashing green light at the end of Scott Fitzgerald’s classic the Great Gatsby. If you look closely at Google and at our own ignorance, you can see the fading green light of the American dream, the dream that we can will our way to victory, that we can construct and reconstruct the self within a teleological trajectory, the dream that we live in a country defined by the right to freedom and fairness.