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May 09, 2003

Clearing Out the Blogwebs

I have a blog. I help other people have blogs. I am a blogger. And yet, it's with supreme happiness that I read Google might finally be doing something about the problem of 'blog noise.'

What's blog noise? The article explains it well enough, but it's worth reiterating since this site happens to be a poster child for its effects.

Suppose you're curious about something like, say, William Bennett's gambling thing. You go to Google, and you feed it the query "William Bennett gambling". It may be different by the time you read this, but, at this very instant, PuddingTime shows up as the number three search result on the topic behind only an AP item (to which I linked),and a parody site. The original article that broke the story? It's down there somewhere, I think. Most of the results, though, are reactions to the story.

There's a certain amount of ego gratification that comes from being such a well-respected source for information. Clearly I'm providing some unique service here, else the impartial and quality-minded algorithms that made Google the very best search engine ever would't be singling me out, right? Bullshit.

The simple fact is, last December I wrote an angry "open letter" directed at uber-blogger Doc Searls over his (ironically enough) bizarre obsession with Google and how often his own name turned up on it. I have no idea whether Doc is a "good guy" or not (the only other time he's ever mentioned my name, it was to liken me to a tobacco lobbyist, but he was trying to make a bigger point and I've forgiven him). He took the screed in stride and stuck me in his blog roll (a link list, presumably to blogs Doc thinks you should read), where I've resided ever since. Now, as a "first mover" in the modern blog world. Doc is so widely linked that Google's search algorithms give him some "weight" as a source of information. Google's designers are democratically minded people who built a prejudice in favor of people who get linked to a lot when they worked out what makes certain search results "good." Some weight also accrues to people who get linked by people who get linked to a lot. In the Googleverse, Doc is like King Kong or Grape Ape or a well-loved and widely worshipped Norse pundit deity, and anyone on whom he confers a link gets some of his magical pixie search dust on themselves.

I'm fairly confident PuddingTime's "popularity" is the result of Doc's link to it, because almost no one else in the overcrowded blogosphere (as much as it pains me to admit it) acknowledges my existence. Not convinced? Here's what Google has to say about who links to this site. Not many folks besides Doc. And why should they? With the exception of a mostly quiet time at the helm of LinuxToday and a minor book, there's not much reason to come searching me out: Pudding Time's yet another blog linking to the same stories some other blogger (or three, or a hundred) is linking to, or showing pictures I took, or whatever else goes on around here. I don't do it because I'm out to set the world on fire with my quality links, I do it because a few friends look in now and then, and that's different from inviting them over for dinner then making them sit through a slide show.

It probably seems like a weird thing to get cranky over getting page views from Google searches but it's not me I'm worrying about (even if I am sick of random strangers who call themselves "MARINE" and "Publius" turning up to complain about my almost commentary-free links to stories). I'm much more concerned about what a disservice to the rest of the world Google's heretofore idiotic insistence on running a giant popularity contest complete with a cool kids lunch table represents. Bloggers are a tiny minority of the population, but they've created an echo chamber that gives inappropriate weight to their choices. They're proud of this, and they brag about their capacity to game Google with Googlebombs and other search-skewing play. Some intentionally, some not, they've subverted a search engine people liked because it was meritocratic about information, and made it about themselves and their narcissism. Their junk is cluttering things up, though, and it pleases me to no end to read Google might do something about it.

This isn't, by the way, the first time Andrew Orlowski has tackled the issue of "gaming" Google. He's taken issue with Googlewashing, and he's got good taste in blogs when he reads the ones that aren't the "tuneless cacophony of the Gen-X gone bored and rich".

Metafilter's readers aren't certain Google's main results will be cleaned up very much and point to some good technical reasons for why this would be tough. A man can still dream.

Posted by mph at May 9, 2003 10:32 AM


Thank you for your incisive observations about how blogging is skewing Google. I've been looking at this issue lately on Google Watch. Don't believe the bloggers who claim that it would be difficult for Google to separate out the blogs from non-blogs. All Google needs to do is de-emphasize the excessive PageRank of the A-list bloggers. See: http://www.google-watch.org/winer.html

Posted by: Daniel Brandt at May 10, 2003 06:01 AM

Bottom line I guess is that heuristics are by definition fallible, and exploitable. PageRank is a heuristic.

You can patch it with a move like downgrading A-list bloggers, but there will always be new ways to game it.

That's what heuristics *are*. Shortcuts to knowledge that trade reliability for ease of use. It's much easier to hope that people link honestly and responsibly than to actually check which pages are worthwhile and which aren't. But that ease comes with a price. Fallibility. Hackability. Gameability.

It's inevitable, unless Google wants to turn into yahoo or dmoz.org.

Posted by: ed at May 10, 2003 09:21 PM

Good points, Ed, but Google's been fighting this battle in other forms since it debuted . . . I hope it has some more fight left in it.

Posted by: mph at May 10, 2003 11:35 PM

I think blogs and Google are currently the greatest threats that Google faces.

The first disproportionally link to each other and to certain stories, thus skewing the pagerank alogorithm. The second makes the kinds of 'list of resources' that the web used to contain obsolete, thereby screwing up the pagerank algorithm

Posted by: chris at June 6, 2003 09:44 AM

Is this a news story or a troll? It's funny that Andrew Orlowski endorses the idea that blogs are nothing but "self referencing inane babble" while simultaneously complaining about blogs clogging up his Google search results. Don't you see the contradiction here? What this means is that blogs will only get in the way of those who are searching for "inane" crap, like the William Bennett gambling story. Do you really need Google search to find stuff on the gambling story? Why not try a news site or Google news? It makes sense that blogs would come up when searching the web (instead of the news) for info on current news stories. That's what a lot of bloggers post to their blogs!

See, this is my problem with this whole debate. Andrew Orlowski never gives any specific examples of what people are missing out on by this "blog noise" problem. What specific search phrase is so damn important that blogs really are getting in the way? When I search for something important and need specific information, Google always finds it for me. And if a blog or a web forum happens to show up, it is usually relevant to my search and very helpful, go figure. I think he is pretty naive about the Google engineers as well as those who blog. He needs to learn how to actually use Google better, rather than make it idiot-proof.

Posted by: at June 7, 2003 03:12 AM

You wrote:


I could NOT have said it better!!! This STUPID "link popularity" game ... which I call the "I'm-the-biggest-whore-on-the-block" Syndrome is aggravating, pointless, and time-consuming in the extreme ... so that instead of being able to spend my time creating a quality information site, I'm forced to spend a good part of my work week chasing links from "complimentary" sites, linking to my competitors, and dealing with people who come in with absolutely NOTHING to offer, whining for a link from my PR 7 site, just to be able to show up adequately enough on Google to make a living. If and when this link popularity requirement hits the shitcan ... there will be a celebration in my corner of the world like you wouldn't believe. Count on it.

Nowhere in the real world would I be required to carry other people's advertising gratis on my shop counters in order to get a decent listing in the Yellow Pages. I can't tell you how much I resent having to do it on the internet.

I know the argument that Google is free and the Yellow Pages are not ... but only if you count actually cash money as the only currency worth considering. If you broaden the definition of "cost" ... this junky link popularity policy is not just costly, it's humiliating and as I said in the beginning ... stupid.

Posted by: Rebecca at June 8, 2003 09:20 AM

See the link I gave! The linked article deals with Gogol.


Posted by: Grasso at July 15, 2003 02:31 AM

I could NOT have said it better!!! This STUPID "link popularity" game

I agree!

Posted by: Josie at August 19, 2003 02:33 AM