Academics & Search Engines

To balance what I’ve just written on politics & search, let me excerpt an article considerably more sympathetic to the “manipulation of results” enterprise:

Let’s say you’re a law professor who is trying to build a reputation as an expert on affirmative action. In the past, you’d build that reputation by publishing articles in various high-profile publications, or journals with scholarly credentials. Many of those articles would show up in a Google search using the key words “affirmative action,” of course, but they’d be scattered all over the results. Because Google considers links to be a kind of vote endorsing the content of a given page, if you created a specific page called “affirmative action” — where your various articles and thoughts were collected — and encouraged others to link to that page, you could very quickly “own” affirmative action in Google. (Right now, none of the top results are associated with an individual, and most are intended as neutral, dictionary-style definitions and discussions. But that needn’t be the case.) And of course, once your page made it to the Top 10, positive feedback would be likely to propel your page higher in the rankings, as more people linked to the page, having found it originally via Google.

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This strategy happens to be old news to the bottom-feeders of the digital world: the spam artists who have long hacked the Google database to ensure that their sites rank highly when people search for “sex” and “blackjack” and “cheap Canadian meds.” But just because the spammers got there first doesn’t mean that Google-centric positioning cheapens the work of intellectuals. The Nation and Harper’s exploit the very same postal system that the junk mail impresarios use, after all.

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[It may be] inevitable that intellectuals who are interested in speaking to a wider audience will orient their work around Google’s rising influence. [F]or the mainstream understanding of complex issues, Google (and Wikipedia, whose entries often rank near the top of Google searches) are quickly becoming central authorities.

I’m a bit less optimistic about this development than Johnson is, if only because I’ve long worried about unintended consequences of ranking systems. But I may just be expressing an academic prejudice against populist editing. And I must say that sites like this, by Vernellia R. Randall, are a great public service that likely deserve to be the top hit for a Google search for “race and health.”

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