Today Lauren Weinstein draws attention to “a fascinating and apparently singular page on Google that you’ve probably never seen.” He’s right, I hadn’t, and apparently not many others have either. The page, http://www.google.com/explanation.html, appears as a sponsored link when you search for the word Jew, and apologizes for the fact that a hate site appears as a highly-ranked result. Although the apology dates back to April 2004, more than three years ago, it has so far attracted fewer citations (currently 50) and bookmarks (currently 26) than some of the blog posts I’ve written since April 2004.
The Web, after all, isn’t really computers and routers, fiber and spinning disk arrays, databases and blogs. The Web is people. Our job now is to find the path toward helping make sure that the power of Web search enhances people’s lives while not incidentally creating asymmetric opportunities for seriously damaging innocent lives in the process.
Question: Would it make sense for search engines, only in carefully limited, delineated, and serious situations, to provide on some search results a “Disputed Page” link to information explaining the dispute in detail, as an available middle ground between complete non-action and total page take downs?
As we see today, that’s already happening in at least this one case. I’m sure it won’t be the only one, and that the kind of mechanism Lauren envisions will emerge.
In parallel, I believe we’ll increasingly need and want more and better explanations of all search results. Today, for example, I am the second and tenth results for the word Jon. As recently as last week I edged out Jon Stewart for the top spot. Why? I have a large Web surface area, it has grown steadily over many years, it’s mostly contained within the link-happy blogosphere.
Five years ago I called this a temporary anomaly, and predicted that a democratization of web presence will adjust the imbalance. It hasn’t happened yet, though. Meanwhile, it’s reasonable to expect that search engines might begin to provide the kinds of explanations that I’ve given here. Yes, ranking algorithms are proprietary, but some evidence — about the number of supporting pages, the structure of collections, the nature of supporting link networks — could go a long way toward helping people contextualize search results.
Web search can create an asymmetric advantage for all kinds of agendas. In exceptional circumstances where such advantage is exploited to do damage to people, I think Lauren’s right, we’ll need a mechanism to handle those exceptions. But in all cases, whether the agenda is positive or negative, better accounting for the nature of the advantage would be helpful.