The Anti-Googlization: How Alternative Search Engines Find Their Way on the Web
On the website googlizationofeverything.com, theorist Siva Vaidhyanathan states that the current web is dominated in several ways by search engine Google. Google related sites and ‘Googleware’ like Google Books and Google Earth and the video channel YouTube. In a lot of countries, Google is by far the most used search engine; in the Netherlands, Google controls even more than 95 percent of the Web search market. Because of this leading position of Google and the fact that a lot of internet users take the search engine as their primer source for finding online information, questions about the power of Google as a search engine can be asked. Google has several ways to determine which search results show up when one’s typing a search term, but who says these results are actually in the right order? And off course, what is the ‘right’ order here? Theorist Pierre Lévy states that the web can be seen as the ultimate example of collective intelligence, because: “No one know everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity” (1) . Thus, not only can people use the internet for their own purposes, but they also shape it when making websites or add content to existing ones. The search results given by Google are a reflection of these inputs, and can thus be seen as a reflection of collective knowledge. People using Google also take for granted that Google is still functioning in such a way, that it can be trusted as being an apparatus reflecting collective knowledge. But since Google uses adverts and became more commercialized, this idea isn’t that natural anymore.
The fact that Google owns so many internet services also plays a part in this idea. Someone who is using, for example, Google Mail, can find implications of this when searching on Google itself. Google can then not only track the interests of this user from the search terms he or she types, but also by tracking data from mails in the Gmail account. This way, the Google adverts showing up when searching or when checking mail fit in more and more with the interests of the user in a more accurate way. The question here is, though: is this user interested in having adverts in his mailbox about topics he likes? Or must this ‘Googlization of interests’ be seen as a privacy issue, since the user is in the first place not asking for this behaviour of Google?
Maybe a solution for these issues can be found in alternative search engines. More and more of these show up, and they seem to be there not only to tease Google in fighting its leading position but also because they search the web in a different way. Microsoft earlier this year came up with Bing, a search engine that has several additional search functions. When, for instance one fills in the search term ‘cat’, in Google this will lead to a lists with websites only, while Bing also categorizes the search results, in ‘cat health’, ‘cat care’, and so on. Even though with the introduction of Bing Microsoft did not literally state it wants to compete with Google, it is said that it is after all introduced for this purpose and some people even claim the name Bing to be an abbreviation of ‘But It’s Not Google‘.
Besides Bing, there are several alternative search engines that have a different focus on the way they search the web. Examples like Tweetmeme and Topsy focus on the content of tweets. Topsy even states at its homepage a list of ‘trending topics’, topics that are at that moment stated often in tweets and therefore probably up-to-date and interesting. According to some, this way of searching leads to more interesting or at least more original answers than Bing does, when compared to Google. Kevin Rose states the Topsy site to be “kinda like google pagerank applied to twitter users”. The slogan of another search engine, OneRiot, even states it is the “Realtime Search for the Realtime Web”. It’s thus more up-to-date than Google, since it also uses tweets and other blog postings. Other similar search engines are Scoopler and Collecta.
These new engines may still be optimized, and maybe it would be an idea to have a search engine that combines both ‘regular’ sites and (micro)blogs in a perfect manner. But it’s interesting to see how they have all emphasize the role of (micro)blogs. While Google puts a lot of effort in wondering which website is the appropriate one to put on top of its search engines, these alternatives have a different method because they take the individual person, writing his blog or tweet, as the basis of searching. Whereas on Google the role of power can be disputed since it has become so commercial, on these search engine sites it seems as if the individual is important – and thus, the search results can in someway be seen as a more pure form of collective knowledge and intelligence. Henry Jenkins quotes Lévy as well to show that in the digital age “collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of media power. (..) Right now, we are mostly using this collective power through our recreational life, but soon we will be deploying those skills for more “serious” purposes.” (2). One of those serious purposes can be found in these new search engines. Even though they’re not that known yet, they probably will be in future. Users of Twitter and other (micro)blogs will then become more aware of them as well and more conscious of the fact that these search engines track their own tweets or messages to provide an alternative answer to Google. The bloggers can write their messages in a more ‘search engine-attractive’ way as well, that is, for example by using clear key words in their tweets or blogs (this already takes place as well). Search engines can then more easily use their tweets to provide useful information and the idea of collective intelligence can be put in practice in these search engines.
1) Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Perseus Books, 1997, p. 20.
(2) Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, New York University, 2006. p. 4.