Google Takes Command: Shaping the Web

On: October 14, 2009
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About Harro Heijboer
In 2008 I graduated from Rotterdam University of Applied Science, after a course in Communication and Multimedia Design. In 2009 I finished the pre-master Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam and currently I'm a master student Media and Culture with special interest in Copyright, Net Neutrality and Software Studies. Beside my very active schedule as a student I'm working as an independent freelance new media producer, specialized in technical web applications, and 2 days a week I'm appointed as Community Manager for a medium sized hardware producer in Rotterdam. In my spare time I'm politically active for the Socialist Party in The Netherlands on all kind of subjects and on the Internet as independent voice against Copyright and pro Net Neutrality.


Even though the web doesn’t have a central point, sometimes Google, or search engines in general, seem to form the center of this universe. Bringing together all these different websites into one database, ready to be searched. Google’s software, the algorithm, seems to be a aggregator, carrying out contextual analysis and grouping similar websites together. But Google’s search results are just a final result of a seemly more deeper process of software that influences other software. Beneath the surface Google seems to take command in changing the web to their standards.

In 2007, Lev Manovich and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego (USSD) and the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information (Calit2) started the software studies initiative. They see software as “the [new] center of the global economy, culture, social life, and, increasingly, politics.” (Manovich, 2008: p.3), including blog tools, recommendation systems and search engines. It organizes the Internet and drives the process of globalization by allowing companies to distribute all around the world. According to Manovich “Software is the invisible glue that ties it all together” (ibid.). Manovich calls for a new paradigm in which we start thinking about how software is shaping our culture and how our culture is shaping software (Manovich 2008: p.9).

In line with Manovich’s call for new research I will take a look at Google and their Google Analytics tool, in how this tool is shaping software, and how other software is shaping this tool. Indirectly also how this is shaping culture (in the broadest sense of the word as “the whole way of life”) and how culture is shaping this software. Because of the importance that Manovich is giving software in our culture, as “a new engine of culture”(Manovich 2008: p.10), he states that, in order to say something about culture, a student should at least be known with two software languages (ibid.). In making an analysis of Google Analytics I derive from my own experience as a programmer, making it seemly more easier to understand how software affects your way of working with software, how it changes programming culture.

For those who are not familiar with Google Analytics; it is a Tool for viewing information about your website traffic. As ‘Analytics’ in the software names implies, is it a tool for analyzing this information in varies ways. Allowing you to change filters and conditions to give you another information output. Most webmasters are using this tool, or other related types of software, to analyze their own software. Adjusting their own software based on the analysis they made using a software like Google Analytics.

In this blogpost I will limit myself in looking at the traffic sources part of Google Analytics, more specifically the part which gives an overview of the search engines and the keyword that were used to find your website. These keywords can tell a software or website developer if his software is being found with the keywords that they want to be found with. Most of the time this seems to be mostly important for marketing and economical reasons. Now when these keywords do not match it can be a reason to adjust your own software in such a way that you get better results in search engines.

Google Analytics

Fig.1: Screenshot of Google Analytics, search engine seach keywords overview

A development that has been unfolding the last few years, is the use of tags. Now tags are being used to make objects like images or stories better searchable. The use of textual keywords as part of identification and classification long predates computers, like with graffiti. Tags are now a common part of most websites, especially blogs. They seem not only to ease navigation on the website but they also add words to your website making it that the website can step up a spot or even a page in search engine results. In short; the software of Google, and any other related analysis tool, seems to change these websites in a way. Now search words in Google analytics and the use of tags is only one of many examples. There is even a complete new branch working with software to change other software, we call it ‘search engine optimization’ (SEO). This change may be seen as a cultural change, a change in work, a change in how programmers design the software, based on other software. “[…] software re-adjusts and re-shapes everything it is applied to – or at least, it has a potential to do this” (Manovich 2008: p.14).

Google Analytics or Google itself are not just changing the other software according to the information they provide. In that case I would give Google way too much power in the organization of the web. When websites (or software) evolve to optimize their website to get them higher in search engine results, eventually Google will need to adjust their algorithm, like they are doing constantly. Google wins a lot by providing the correct search results, they themselves have to adjust their software according to social and economical demand. But also according to other software. By indexing software, which is changing by the use of Google Tools, Google’s algorithm will need to change as well to still provide the correct search results. Optimizing your website for search engines doesn’t mean that this website should be the best search result for a certain query. This makes it that Google needs to change too.

Now Google Analytics is not the only tool that search engines, like Google, are providing to analyze your website data. For Google the Webmaster Tools and Google AdWords are other important tools in providing about your search result. Which seems in most cases to derive from economical or cultural factors. Better search results equals more visitors, equals more money? As Manovich states “Various social and economic factors […] also constrain possible directions of software evolution” (2008, p.62). It seems to me more and more important to understand how software works. It seems to change our culture, our social and economical systems and even other software.

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