Google this week admitted that its staff will pick and choose what appears in its search results. It’s a historic statement – and nobody has yet grasped its significance.
Not so very long ago, Google disclaimed responsibility for its search results by explaining that these were chosen by a computer algorithm.
A few years ago, Google’s apparently unimpeachable objectivity got some people very excited, and technology utopians began to herald Google as the conduit for a new form of democracy. Google was only too pleased to encourage this view. It explained that its algorithm “relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web.” ^
We like things that operate invisibly because then we assume they’re fair because no other single person could be gaming the results. We trust nature, the Invisible Hand, economics, democracy etc because they are in the hands of the mass and not an individual.
Yahoo! took one look at the web and realized that, unless AIs got a lot better, human beings would be needed to (1) understand what the person behind a search query is looking for and (2) separate the wheat from the chaff. This applies to complex queries; someone looking for “Britney Spears” does fine with auto-democratic results, but someone looking for “doors of perception” needs to be redirected to Aldous Huxley and not “Perception-Enhanced Doors, Inc” of Ocala, FL.
With Yahoo! having, through the type of bad leadership endemic to programmers who are accustomed to each object having a linear function, gone belly-up for all practical purposes, Google is closing the gap: now the machine does the hard work of compiling possible links, and people vote them up. It’s like Wikipedia, Slashdot, Reddit, or Fark… but, using the lessons of Wikipedia, Google has appointed an editorial staff so the results don’t get hijacked and mutilated.
It’s an intelligent move, and that required Google to overcome our innate modern fear of The Other Guy and start selecting people who can lead and putting them to good use: making sure Aunt Hilda is able to find accurate results, sans spam and idiocy, every time. But somewhere in Jerry Yang’s mind he should be registering that he was right all along, and something else caused Yahoo! to curl up and die.