Okay, I finished the Halavais selection last night. It’s a very interesting work, and I see myself buying it when publication is complete. There are some very interesting implications in the way that Google and other search engines have developed, and there’s some interesting cultural, racial, and socio-economic implications that are raised by the first chapter. It’s definitely a topic which will be huge in further studies, bigger than it is right now.
But I don’t care.
Well, let me rephrase that slightly. I’m not the least bit interested in this aspect of studying the internet phenomenon yet. It’s not that I don’t think it’s relevant, because there are some real social implications in the way that the world is using Search Engine technology, and Alex is great at pointing those out.
It’s just that this field is far too broad already, and this is one topic I’m much happier leaving to the scholars who actually feel called to study it. I acknowledge that study of it is rather important and can have some real impact on social issues and technological development, but there comes a point at which you really have to focus on a topic in order to make any headway or advancement in its scholarship.
Searching as a profession
Part of my reluctance to engage in this particular field of inquiry with any depth comes from the fact that I worked for a year as a Recruiter. If there’s any profession which is itching for the latest and greatest search tools and technology, it’s the recruiting profession.
My daily routine included logging in to Monster.com on the employer side, then CareerBuilder.com. Being a Creative Recruiter (as in, recruiting designers and copywriters), I also would look at Portfolios.com and Coroflot.com. Then I would go to mySpace and do a search for locals who indicated Graphic Design as their profession or interests. All in an attempt to generate 60 new telephone numbers to call, preferrably. Email was frowned upon as a vehicle for sales communication, seen as fishing, not as selling. You don’t email folks until you already have a relationship with them. Then you’re conveniently “not at your desk” when the contacts call unless they’re making you money, and you conduct the rest of the business over email.
That was the daily routine. Kind of like reading the paper. Then, I would hit “Power Hour” when all I did was call those 60 numbers and leave carefully rehearsed messages. Once that was done, around lunchtime I would then be able to spend an hour or so with my good friend Google.
Google & The Smell of Blood in the Water
Google was like a friend of mine, but it was a friend that you need, not a friend that you like. An uneasy friendship existed between the two of us, Google and me. I had graduated from the simple search, and I would mess around with all of the advanced search features. I wasn’t looking for recruits every lunch hour on Google. I was searching for the Holy Grail, the mother of all search engine requests. I was trying to come up with the magic formula, the search query which, when perfected, would actually get Google to deliver results to me that I could use in my recruiting efforts. Just like programmers spend years developing algorithms for various programming tasks, I was spending a good portion of my day trying to narrow down or innovate new queries which I could type in, hit submit, and then simply print out all of the web pages of folks desperately looking for work as a graphic designer. In my area. With the right education. And a decent portfolio.
It’s not as easy as it sounds.
That’s my biggest complaint with search engine technology. I knew that those folks were out there. I could smell the proverbial blood in the water. I just couldn’t find it.
I disagree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of www.fuckingoogleit.com. It’s not so simple as just typing in a few keywords and then getting perfect results. The search begins the search process. Halavais mentioned how teens would start searching for one term and then change the search parameters based on the initial results from Google. This was interpreted in the reading as being the search engine shaping the search, which is true. It assumes, however, that the user changed their mind as to what they were looking for, as opposed to changing their mind about what kinds of terms to enter into the search engine to get to the idea which was held.
Human/Computer Communication Gap
Think about that for a moment. We are accustomed to the idea that computers are wonderful things. Most people also know that there is a communication barrier between man and machine. Was the user in the example changing their search target, or were they using a technique similar to the linguistic technique of circumlocution? I’ll call it ‘circumlocation’. What circumlocution means is trying to define something by describing it, or using words similar to the meaning. It’s a technique encouraged in students of foreign languages. If you can’t think of the exact word, try using smaller words to describe it. The hope is that it will allow your audience to understand what you mean and perhaps even supply you with the correct way to phrase it. (It works. We do it all the time in English, too, so it’s not just for foreign languages.)
Circumlocation as a search method
Circumlocation, then, would be using a search engine to try and find something that you know you’re looking for, but don’t quite know how to phrase for the search engine. Computers speak a different language, or at least a different dialect even when they do try to parse human language. The user begins the dialogue by asking for what they think they’re looking for. The search engine dutifully performs exactly as asked. The users looks at the results and makes a decision whether or not those results are what were actually asked for. If not, they refine the search using the results given to try a different language tack until they either find what they’re looking for, or they go off to play on Facebook or mySpace. Circumlocation.
What’s really annoying is that my searches never really got better. There were plenty of people out there who needed jobs in graphic design, and I had jobs to give them. But finding their websites was very difficult, even with the “magic” that is Google. After spending so long trying to use the tool and not really ever finding much success, I just decided to keep trying in the hopes that the technology would upgrade someday and some of those searches would work.
On it all goes
I’m not sure that any search engine, anywhere, anywhen, will ever correct access inequalities. First page of a Google search is going to get a lot of hits. The long tail exists, but you have to want to find it. The ranking system reports popularity, not relevance because relevance algorithms can’t take things into context. If there is to be hope, it’s going to lie in the Metadata processing. But even there, marketing skews the curve because by judicious metadata use you can hopefully inflate the ranking of your site on any given search.
Definitely a thorny problem. The research and results will be interesting and if time permits, I’ll try and keep up with them. But I leave this one area to other scholars more invested in this arena than I.