February 18, 2011

The Ephemerality of Search

Google announced yesterday that search was becoming more social. We won’t go into the technical details in this post (the NYT provides a useful overview), but the basic point behind the tweaking of their interface was to allow results to incorporate information that your friends and contacts find relevant and share on platforms like Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook.

This seems to be Google’s final move to ensure the ephemerality of the search experience. Google has already made search a highly personalised experience in both space and time.

Search results have always been temporally unfixed (a search for the same topic last month, yesterday, today, and tomorrow all can yield different results). However, this trend is speeding up to the point that Google will maintain a real-time index of the Web. What is important here is that both the algorithms used and the information that they harvest and rank are constantly changing.

More recently the geography of results has also become unfixed. Our work analysing Google’s autocomplete in different locations tries to highlight some of these differences. The same search at the same time from two different locations can yield dissimilar results.

The search experience has also been personalised, not only through the memory of links that we highlight or star, but by triangulating results with other personal information that Google knows about us. The happy birthday doodle below is just one example of how this sort of personalisation is enacted.

And now, not only are results individually, temporally and geographically targeted, but also socially specific. My results are now no longer just dependent on my positionality in time and space, but also the time and space positionalities of my entire social network.

This is important due to the powerful links between representation and repetition. We are served information, we act on it, and we thus reproduce and reinforce those representations. This cycle opens up possibilities for a path-dependence of the powerful to be enacted and re-enacted.

Google has received (often warranted) criticism over the ways that it represents, ranks, structures and sorts. Yet despite its general opacity, it had a knowable presence of sorts. Its actions could be observed, and thus criticised and challenged.

However, it is now increasingly difficult to know how Google is “organizing the world’s information.” How do we map and measure, study and critique this increasingly ephemeral tool that so many of us rely on for our informational needs? This will be an increasingly central question for those of us concerned about representations, rankings, and our ability to recreate and challenge them.

See also:

- Ethan Zuckerman on "Listening to Global Voices"
- Zook and Graham on "Google and the Privatization of Cyberspace and DigiPlace."
- Thanks to Monica Stephens for the link to the story.

1 comment:

  1. We don't measure Google, Google is measuring us. Google is constantly changing and this is the only characteristic.


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