An author suggests Google search result data gives us better indicators of attitudes toward insecurity, race, and sex than surveys:
I think there’s two. One is depressing and kind of horrifying. The book is called Everybody Lies, and I start the book with racism and how people were saying to surveys that they didn’t care that Barack Obama was black. But at the same time they were making horrible racist searches, and very clearly the data shows that many Americans were not voting for Obama precisely because he was black.
I started the book with that, because that is the ultimate lie. You might be saying that you don’t care that [someone is black or a woman], but that really is driving your behavior. People can say one thing and do something totally different. You see the darkness that is often hidden from polite society. That made me feel kind of worse about the world a little bit. It was a little bit frightening and horrifying.
But, I think the second thing that you see is a widespread insecurity, and that made me feel a little bit better. I think people put on a front, whether it’s to friends or on social media, of having things together and being sure of themselves and confident and polished. But we’re all anxious. We’re all neurotic.
That made me feel less alone, and it also made me more compassionate to people. I now assume that people are going through some sort of struggle, even if you wouldn’t know that from their Facebook posts.
We know surveys have flaws and there are multiple ways – from sampling, to bad questions, to nonresponse, to social desirability bias (the issue at hand here) – they can be skewed.
But, these flaws wouldn’t lead me to these options:
- Thinking that search results data provides better information. Who is doing the searching? Are they a representative population? How clear are the patterns? (It is common to see stories based on the data but that provide no numbers. “Illinois” might be the most misspelled word in the state, for example, but by a one search margin and with 486 to 485 searches).
- Thinking that surveys are worthless on the whole. They still tell us something, particularly if we know the responses to some questions might be skewed. In the example above, why would Americans tell pollsters they have more progressive racial attitudes that they do? They have indeed internalized something about race.
- That attitudes need to be measured as accurately as possible. People’s attitudes often don’t line up with their actions. Perhaps we need more measures of attitudes and behaviors rather than a single good one. The search result data cited above could supplement survey data and voting data to better inform us about how Americans think about race.
The Scottish band Chvrches spelled their name in such a way to help separate themselves online:
Chvrches, deliberately misspelled to maximize Google-search recognition, formed after Mayberry, Cook and Doherty were slogging through indie-rock bands and day jobs.
A tactic only for the Google search result age. Bands can go through all sorts of hoops to select a good name that reflects who they are as well as attracts the attention of consumers. I’m reminded of how the Beatles selected a name – multiple name changes in the early years and resisting the influence of the day to be something like John Lennon and the Beatles (have the group name reflect the lead singer/personality) – versus how Blur selected theirs – off a list of potential names given to them by a label executive. (For a fun Wikipedia time, check out this page with hundreds of band name etymologies.) Today, you can add to the list the strategy of taking a common name or phrase and then tweaking it in such a way that no other Internet personality could overlap. Still, I can hear the conversations even among fans:
I like that song. Who is the artist.
Great. Wait, I can’t find anything about them online.
Yeah, they have a v rather than a u in their name.
Oh, there they are…
This article suggests the Huffington Post’s value (exhibited in its recent sale to AOL) is based more on search engine optimization than on news or citizen journalism:
In addition to writing articles based on trending Google searches, The Huffington Post writes headlines like a popular one this week, “Watch: Christina Aguilera Totally Messes Up National Anthem.” It amasses often-searched phrases at the top of articles, like the 18 at the top of the one about Ms. Aguilera, including “Christina Aguilera National Anthem” and “Christina Aguilera Super Bowl.”
As a result of techniques like these, 35 percent of The Huffington Post’s visits in January came from search engines, compared to 20 percent for CNN.com, according to Hitwise, a Web analysis firm.
Mario Ruiz, a spokesman for The Huffington Post, said search engine optimization played a role on the site but declined to discuss how it was used.
Though traditional print journalists might roll their eyes at picking topics based on Google searches, the articles can actually be useful for readers. The problem, analysts say, is when Web sites publish articles just to get clicks, without offering any real payoff for readers.
This is an ongoing issue with online news providers: simply producing good journalistic content doesn’t get the same number of clicks as celebrity and gossip-laden stories. And as the article suggests, some search engines, such as Google, may fight back by reducing the rank or placement of pages or sites that rely heavily on popular keywords.
But aren’t these sorts of practice inevitable when making money on the Internet is based around page views and clicking on advertisements? The goal has to be simply getting the most viewers rather than providing the best or more complete or most useful content.
In case you haven’t heard, a few days ago Google started publicly accusing Microsoft’s Bing of stealing its search results. Juan Carlos Perez over at PCWorld has published an interesting roundup of reactions to Google’s new “strategy” of public accusations:
While the merits of Google’s accusation are up for debate — Microsoft denies the charge — the fact that Google chose to complain in such a loud and agitated manner has become fertile ground for analysis and comment by industry observers.
Opinions range from those who view Google’s actions as hypocritical to others who say the company did the right thing by airing its grievance.
PCWorld’s link to Daniel Eran Dilger reaction over at Roughly Drafted is especially worth checking out. Personally, I come down on the “Google is being hypocritical” side of things. It’s hard to have the expansive view of copyright law and fair use that Google embraces for its own activities and then to complain with any legitimacy about Microsoft’s alleged behavior.
Unfortunately, copyright law in general (and fair use in particular) is notoriously unclear, malleable, and subject to judicial whims. It’s doubtful that Google will actually sue Microsoft over this, so we may never know what the “answer” is.
However, even if a U.S. court upheld Microsoft’s right to copy Google’s search results (assuming that’s what happened here), that would only give us an answer (1) on these specific facts (2) as between parties willing to litigate (and maybe even (3) before that particular judge). Given the high costs of litigation, most non-Fortune-500 copyright users claiming fair use rights usually find it is in their best interest to settle for a few thousand dollars when saddled with a copyright infringement lawsuit. Indeed, there are companies based on this very business model that are out there suing people; the number of copyright infringement suits is rising.
This latest spat between Google and Microsoft is, to some extent, a sideshow, but it does highlight some of the problems that uncertainty breeds within copyright law. I’m not worried about Microsoft’s ability to defend itself: it’s a multi-billion dollar company with lawyers and PR specialists both in-house and on speed dial. I am worried about the start ups that are seeking to be the next Google or Microsoft: they generally can’t afford to get anywhere close to the line because they know that an infringement lawsuit may mean millions in legal fees and damages, so they back off and play it safe.
That’s the real cost of un-clarity in copyright law.
Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post provides a behind-the-scenes look at how newspapers attempt to position themselves in search engines in order to draw more readers. While these are news organizations with often serious intentions, they have to compete with other popular web topics. Here is what Kurtz suggests this looks like:
If you appease the Google gods with the right keywords, you are blessed with more readers. So carried to a hypothetical extreme, an ideal headline would be, “Sarah Palin rips non-Muslim Obama over mosque while Lady Gaga remains silent.”…
On a recent Wednesday morning, some Post editors were frustrated that the primary election results weren’t garnering many hits — despite the fact that John McCain had just won his party’s nomination and Lisa Murkowski was on the verge of losing hers. What was hot, the traffic directors said, was Elin Nordegren telling People that her life had been “hell” since her husband’s sex scandal, a photo of an alligator in the Chicago River, and a video posted on Gawker of a British woman throwing a feral cat into a dumpster…
Zaleski says such trend research is used mainly to tweak headlines and search terms. But, she adds, “what we’re realizing is that we can’t live in a vacuum, where we decide what people want to read.”
The quest for online eyeballs is one that all online sites are competing in and those who are interested in providing or discussing more serious topics do not seem to be winning the day.