Posted by: glundeen | January 2, 2008

Changing Google Algorithms, Wikipedia Killers and the Human Thirst For Steel Cage Combat

The Google algorithm is changing, to a system that favors recent content, so that informative articles that would have once risen to the top now appear behind recent posts. A few TechCrunch commenters point out that this is old news and Google’s been doing this for some months now. Another commenter also pointed out that Google is notorious for testing things incrementally, small changes that lead to one large change.

In a public library, a lot of the basic search information people use most comes from either Google or Wikipedia. Time and again, these are the 2 practical sources that I see most people using on our public terminals. When I teach computer classes and explain what a search engine is, it’s news to most folks, and they’re certainly not concerned about the algorithms. A librarian in this day and age has to be, though, because we need to know in what direction we’re sending people. Like it or not, we’re all default tech people now, and if we want the public library to continue being an authoritative information source we need to pay attention.

Is this move targeted at Wikipedia, especially with Google preparing a competitor (called Knols)? I’m sure they’d say otherwise, but now that Google has experienced such massive growth, the pressure to innovate must be extreme, and you can bet they’d love that slice of the content pie that Wikipedia currently occupies. Google apparently plans on paying people based on the traffic their posts generate, as well as including bylines to give authors credit. Contrast this with Wikipedia, whose whole aesthetic denies these things. I always loved Wikipedia’s lofty goals of wanting to provide all the world with all the free information they could, and though a statement like this might largely be considered a platitude, as far as I know they seem to put their money where their mouth is more often than not. I highly doubt that Google would directly screw Wikipedia over and shut them out, but theoretically they could, because of the power Google has over the user who thinks that Google and the internet are one and the same.

Getting a byline doesn’t hold the same prestige as it once did, as the nature of publishing has changed thanks to a networked world, and the great miracle of Wikipedia is that the people who post do it for free, simply because they want to share, because they can. Would this same spirit exist with a Google competitor that pays and offers bylines? Personally, I feel like bylines don’t really belong in the encyclopedia, even an online permutation. There’s something beautiful about unbiased information for its own sake, and while Wikipedia still has a ways to go, they really have improved the quality of their site to the point that I no longer cringe when I offer it to people as a reference source (usually as a good place to start research on a topic, not the final say). Considering Wikipedia provides a list of every edit by every author of a post on its history pages, I’d say they do attribute authorship, with the caveat that the authors prefer prestige and authority within the community to a traditional byline broadcasting credit. 

It seems like a lot of folks, like Henry Blodgett, are pretty excited about a “battle”. Blodgett calls Knols “a human-generated Wikipedia and About.com killer,” which strikes me as a strange way to put it. Forgive me if I reveal my naivete here, but isn’t Wikipedia also human-generated? In fact, isn’t all this technology human-generated? If all humanity became extinct and somehow our technology remained and an alien race visited Earth to check out the mess we made, would they differentiate? Would it even matter? The line between man and machine is getting blurrier every day. Is it becoming a “chicken or the egg” question? This Wired article provide a little more perspective, even with the comments that call Wikipedia a “total disaster,” which is inane.

It’s a minor miracle that Google has stayed as true to their roots and core mission as they have.  There’s a part of humanity that craves head-to-head competition, so we indulge in it wherever we can find it, even vicariously. We want to imagine Wikipedia in one corner of the steel cage and Google in the other, but that’s just not how it works.

So what does it all mean? Innovation, with any luck.

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