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Just Google it

6 March, 2017 (20:02) | Rants | By: Ian Burdon

Way back in the misty long ago, when the world was young and access to knowledge was mediated by either books or a 56k modem that made funny noises as it hogged the telephone line, I read about a new-fangled thing called Google search. I’m almost sure I first read of it in New Scientist, but it would also have been one of Jack Schofield’s columns in the late, lamented Guardian IT pages of the 1990s.

At the time I used AltaVista and Google was a revelation. Firstly, Google was a clean white page with a box in the middle that said “search”; there was no directory or other information filling the screen, just a search box. Secondly, there was the original Google index and search algorithm that worked much, much better than anything that preceded it.

At the time, the internet was in its infancy and still a novelty. The notion of Google indexing pages, then searching the index and ranking results based on the pages most commonly linked to, as a proxy for accuracy or helpfulness, was a good one. But that was then. Now the internet is a sprawling thing, like a ragged old duvet draped over a cesspit. And the search algorithms are increasingly unhelpful as people game the system. Yes, I know the search companies try to correct for this, but the task is too large.

This has been on my mind in two specific cases recently.

The first was when trying to track down information on Major Thomas Weir, a particularly interesting C17 citizen of Edinburgh. The difficulty is the internet is full of nonsense about him, often simply cut and pasted from other sites without attribution. For example, he always comes up as a notorious monster, executed for witchcraft. But he wasn’t: he was accused of witchcraft but the court didn’t convict him of that; he was executed for sexual offences. He was a well-known Covenanter, and the political aspects of his trial, and the subsequent blackening of his name for propaganda purposes are entirely overlooked by pretty much any site that comes up in the first few pages of the search. That propaganda is now the stuff of Edinburgh ghost tours and guide books.

The second was this evening, trying to track down informed commentary on elements of Islamic teaching in the Qu’ran; every site in the first 10 pages or so of the search results, using different search parameters, seemed to be churning out anti-Islam polemic from “Christian” sites, no doubt all expertly positioned in the ranks via diligently applied Search Engine Optimisation techniques.

It’s almost as though it would be worth going back to the pre-Google days, when search engines sat in portals hooked to directories. Other than that, I can’t see any solution.