Google Only Knows!

Jonny Darling Insight Leave a Comment

Googlewhacking, a pastime widely popularised by author Dave Gorman in his epic Googlewhack adventure, isn’t what you think it is! To “whack” Google is to search for that elusive query that will return just one search engine result in Google’s listings! When the notion first came to light early in the 21st century, claiming a Googlewhack was, though questionable, attainable! Fast forward to 2010 & to feature in The Whack Stack is to lust after the Holy Grail!!

“The answer is not always found at Google”… so reads my local parish church placard. As Google’s quest to organise all content on the world wide web is match by processing power and data storage capacity, you could argue that statement (but to quote Father Ted, “that would be an Ecumenical matter”!). Google may not always display the “right” answer to your question, but it will make a fairly accurate stab of it, and more often than not, have more than a solitary answer at that.

Worship aside, if we are to understand how is has come to pass that Google has in fact to all intents and purposes the answer to every imaginable question, it is instructive to consider Google’s background, founded in Stanford with Larry Page’s seminal work, his page-rank dissertation, then more broadly, the history of search. The secret to Google’s success throughout has been the relevancy of its’ results to the end-user. “What would Google do” by Jeff Jarvis considers Google’s approach to business and how it could be applied in other industries. In essence, it examines recursive learning. Google thrives on the information that we offer up to them, not the information they deliver to us. Google is in the business of people, not information. The Economist coins this as data exhaust, the contractual exchange of information we accept with Google every time we engage of their services. We become part of the Google experiment. It is no coincidence that Google cordons off an area on their site called “labs”. They are in a perpetual state of Beta. We are the test subjects, the “lab” rats!

Though sensationalist, the privacy debate is bubbling to the surface, entering mainstream psyche as news filters through of security vulnerabilities in China and insecure log-in mechanics. This is but the tip of the iceberg. It gets personal with individual behavioural analysis and personality profiling. Market research has transformed from the push dynamic of surveys, samples and questionnaires to a more subtle yet infinitely more effective collective force. Rather than chase their tail, Google sets the bait and waits! Google is strategically poised to amass ever greater clouds of intellectual property. There is power in numbers, something the “network effect” of social media harnesses so well. From Google’s perspective, the more noise the better, as every interaction is another piece of the puzzle. As the jig-saw materialises, so develops a picture portrait of the individual. Sinister admittedly, but Google is foraging for data, and it does so, little red riding hood, because “it is all the better for seeing you with”. Google’s rapid and aggressive expansion scheme, typified in the Twitter acquisition, and more recently Ireland’s own Plink implies that Google’s business plan may have less to do with monetising such platforms through advertising, and more about pioneering relational economics.

Bottom line, as soon as we log on, we are tracked by our ISP(internet service provider). Our browsing habits are recorded, as is our location. We are on the radar. The same can be said for phones. Switch on a mobile and you flash up on the grid. Start visiting websites, or using 3G wireless to load apps on your smart phone and you become a statistic to the content provider, both ISP and destination portal. Web-savvy publishers love to trace visitor behaviour, with newspaper syndicates cottoning on to the value-add for consumers. For instance, home page architecture is built on-the-fly based on user content preferences, while the voice of the masses is aggregated by article popularity, thereby tailoring the individual’s experience and engaging them in populist culture. Google epitomise this service model. Their systems go far beyond conventional analytics scrutiny and subsequent adaptation to model individual patterns, repetition and regularity, gradually filing profile prototypes. Mass marketing relies on the lowest common denominator, the stereotype. Google challenges the establishment with a higher echelon of market intelligence, increasingly capable of segmenting stereotypes by socio-demographic, according to hundreds of variables, be they health, physical, activity, location, psychological, personality or relationships, to name a few. In putting a face to the market, they humanise it. This empowers Google with the most sophisticated, accurate form of advertising ever known, where placement compliments every unique person. Facebook’s latest announcement reveals the extent of personal information these website’s are capable of storing, using and, if they so wish, capitalising on. We think of search marketing as niche, and ROI-focused. We haven’t scratched the surface! Every time we use the web, conduct a search, visit a website, send an email, chat on IM, or upload a photo, we lengthen our digital footprint.

One economic pillar that will not crumble is scarcity. Sole proprietary ownership of sensitive, and detailed information drives a high price, one that might eventually supersede the vast reserves of wealth that ads currently contribute to Google’s balance sheet. We are their resource, their greatest asset, hence they tread with caution before trampling over our trust. As Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings advises, great power comes great responsibility. Google’s greatest dilemma is first how to release this information without causing anarchy, then how to bundle it as a salable commodity. Therein lies responsibility, and while government bodies try to grasp this nettle, it is with little surprise that organisations such as Digital Rights Ireland have sprung up to highlight that big brother(Google, not God!) is watching. In a very astute move, Google has countered this wave of resistance with privacy advocacy of its own, in the form of the Data Liberation Front. Call this conspiracy theory, but in doing so, Google actually gets a front row seat in the action, and can monitor it from the inside out. It’s ironic, but as Jarvis suggests, Google, in making friends with the enemy, is living by the credence to “know your friends well, know your enemies better”! Apparently benevolent, such flair ups as the opt-in/opt-out fiasco on Google’s information privacy terms of service further suggest that Google is merely paying lip-service, all the while desperate to ring-fence greater volumes of personal data of universal magnitude.

The human rights protests witnessed at G20 summits would be quaint tea parties in comparison to the fire of rage sparked when middle-America or white-collar Europe feel the pinch. It’s something to think about next time you type a query into Google. Are you signing your life away on the dotted line? In this seemingly meritocratic environment, has the hunter become the hunted?

Easing back a little on the dramatics of our espionage plot, there is a lot to be said for harvesting data. In the right hands, untold knowledge can be applied to righteous causes, it can Do No Evil. Google is at pains to stress how sharing is caring. The staggering volume of market research available through Google tools is only gradually appearing in Google’s Barometer and Research divisions. Equipped with the tools and skill-set to interrogate such data, we can all gain from the era of public scrutiny.

Personally I am liberated by the notion. Once realised that the digital veil of anonymity is transparent, my approach and interaction online adjusts accordingly. I accept that every search is tagged against me, and let’s not think for one minute that search history removed, or an image deleted in Facebook, actually vanishes! We just don’t see it anymore! There lies the great con of public/private web-browsing. Online, boundary demarcation erodes and the dividing line between private and public dissolves. It’s one great big fish-tank. Knowledge is power and I am empowered when I know what I am sharing with the world. I am prompted to sculpt my public profile. Protectionism fails in the autonomous online realm. Expect to see a lot more of me on Google Latitude and Foursquare!