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Bring back the online meritocracy 

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/somewhatfrank/Last Thursday’s meeting (all in attendance: Natalie, Jim, Mark and myself) touched on, after a long discussion about education and a briefer one about my mayoral campaign, . Has it peaked?
   Jim spoke highly of , ’s , and I was surprised to hear that its market share has grown very strongly since launch. Originally, I was a bit sceptical about Bing (it insisted I was in the UK when I used it in New Zealand, for example) but Jim makes a good point: it is geared toward those who wish to shop, and has an unparalleled (so far) interface that takes people to sites where they can buy the products they seek.
   My concern over Google is its new algorithm and the long-discussed supplemental index. Search engine boffins have talked about the latter for some time and how negative it might be for a website. Google, instead of addressing the problem directly, merely removed the words supplemental result from those that it had deemed to be second-class pages, not worthy of a high ranking on the service. Some pages were labelled second-class, never mind how good the content is on them. Score 1 for the Fonz and 0 for Richie Cunningham.
   Google is, of course, in the search business—or maybe the online one—so it makes financial sense to increase revenue for the areas that make money. However, I wonder if this is at the expense of its utility.
   We know there are some obvious trends out there. People have Tweeted, for instance, surviving emergency landings on planes or the protests around the time of the Iranian elections. This might not be (we can debate the term later) but it is relevant. People want to read this real-time, or, at least, very personal involvement in an event, without the filters of the .
   A meritorious search engine, one that judges the merit of the content before it judges the wallets of the site’s backers, is what netizens want. Once upon a time, Google was it. Now I wonder.
   For Google, with its reliance on and incoming links, will bias its results toward the establishment these days. Think about what you have searched for lately: aren’t fewer, but still authoritative, individuals coming up on p. 1?
   The citizen journalist, to use the term loosely, is penalized even if (s)he has been honest with meta tags, because those results aren’t going to be up top. The little guy is not that visible on Google, but the establishment is. You’ll have to keep flicking the search results’ pages to find the independent voices.
   To be fair, many established media sites deserve to be ranked highly. There is a difference between a Tweet and a well researched story that has background information and proper . And this must put Google into a quandary: is it a research tool, or an medium?
   Those who might want the recent Tweet aren’t after in-depth news, but an impression, or a fleeting headline, of what is happening. In the majority of cases, that does not qualify as research. Those who want the full story want an understanding of something, and what they are doing with Google is research. Therein lies a split.
   None of the search engines have perfected this, but it means there is room for one that will. So I am picking on Google unfairly. Perhaps there is space for a two-column layout: one for the in-depth stuff and another for the Tweets? The real estate is there on a search engine results’ page, regardless of the . People have learned from the fussiness of Hotbot in the late 1990s.
   Or perhaps Google can go back to the days when the big site and the little site were given the same consideration based on their content and how honestly their webmasters had gone about organizing it? Then there would be no concerns about any split: people would get what they want.
   Of course, the big won’t be supported as much, and the advertisers with money to spend on Google Ads won’t be seen with the big names as often.
   But at least, that way, it’s a . It still would penalize the fakes who use doorway pages and deceptive redirects. It would not reward the blogs where no attempt at writing descriptions has been made. It rewards content and, as we have heard when it comes to internet matters, content is king.
   I often say that when things get complex, simplify. I am one of those people who believe the search engines’ function is that of research, not entertainment. That means a search engine should pull out the most relevant results, supplemental or not, for the user. It should not be about pulling out just the latest or the most linked-to sites such as Reuter or AP, but anyone who has something relevant that should be heard.
   Some consideration must go back toward rewarding that honesty. These days, being honest isn’t counting for nearly as much when this search engine ranks its pages.
   There is an additional reason for my request: we make no progress as a species if all we know is the immediate, collective-memory stuff. Throw in relevant results about where we have been, and we might avoid making the same mistakes as a human race.
   Bring back the internet meritocracy—and if Google won’t, then somebody else should. We thought AltaVista would stick around as the premier search engine 10 years ago—so we know that anything can happen in this market, almost overnight.
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I think the trouble with Google today is how profoundly it is being overwhelmed by spammers and other miscreants. Many searches return significant numbers of pages set up by spammers, phishers and malware writers. It is noticably worse than it used to be. Bing on the other hand doesn't have the breadth of indexing to seriously threaten Google (yet). Set "network.prefetch-next" in about:config in Firefox/Mozilla to "false" to prevent it preloading websites from Google searches.  
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