The Algorithm knows all and sees all

Search engines have become a major part of the web 2.0 landscape and within this category, Google has emerged as the dominant force. Even the name inspires brand dominance, as to search for something on the internet is now referred to as ‘googling’. During the 1990s and 2000s this was not the case though, as Yahoo still had a monopoly of sorts over the search engine field. This has shifted dramatically, and many attribute this to the advanced concepts, and stringent belief in, the Google algorith.

In its most general sense, an algorithm is any set of detailed instructions which results in a predictable end-state from a known beginning. Every computer program is simply a series of instructions, which may vary in complexity, and is listed in a specific order, designed to perform a specific task. [http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-an-algorithm.htm] Google were vastly ahead of their time in the search engine field because they realised that the importance of an effective algorithm was the most important factor in keeping up with the rapidly expanding information permeating the internet. In fact, the google algorithm becomes more effective as new information comes in contact with it, as, unencumbered by the contact manipulations of programmers it increases scale in the same way that scientists experience increased power in an experiment by increasing the number of participants. It becomes more reliable, not less, alike many of Google’s competitors who had fundamental differences in ideology which ultimately caused them to be left behind.

Yahoo beliecved that it was important that they controlled the algorithm while Google saw that objectivity would win out leaving the algorithm to sort by itself . The pure algorith approach has faced certain critics. Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow argued that algorithms that rank pages “embody the biases, hopes and beliefs and hypotheses of the programmers who write and design them.” Competitors have tries to use the human influence as a marketing tool. Microsoft has tried to use the lack of a powerful algorithm as an advantage, a sign of the company’s human touch in their advertising line, “Algorithm: meet humanity.” But Google has continued to prove easily ahead of these competitors in terms of user experience, leading to the shifting matrketplace.

As for the argument of subjectivity, Google has continued to stick by their algorithm which, although it is created by humans, works without retroactive input from humans which should enable objectivity. Although Google might be prioritising views, or subject matter or vice versa, the algorithm gives no credence to any political, religious or other bias. Google has steadfastly asserted that the results produced by the algorithm will not be edited, adjusted or touched in any way by human intervention. The only way to scale their system to handle all the world’s information was by automating all processes. Were they to permit second-guessing the algoritm, and tinkering with the search results after the search, such human intervention would slow the system and hobble it.

Google’s creators have accepted at times though, that humans were important as forms of quality control inspectors. Google has hired tens of thoussands of human evaluators to assess ther relative quality of search results. But their feedback was used tio adjust the algorithm itslef rather than the search results directly, unlike Yahoo. Yahoo’s inability to scale its human edited directory as the Web expanded showed the limitations of a system that relied upon humans.

One point of contention for the rhetoric of Google’s algorithm is the point on privacy. This article states that Google, through relying solely on the search terms rather than the users information, respects privacy to a higher degree than social networking sites. But Google may need to make some PR stunt regarding privacy measures in the wake of the PRISM scandal, and the collusion of google in this scandal. “We deliver that information to the US government — generally through secure FTP transfers and in person,” Google spokesman Chris Gaither told Wired.com. In a hopeful step, in September, Google quietly made a change aimed at encrypting all search activity — except for clicks on ads. Google says this has been done to provide “extra protection” for searchers, and the company may be aiming to block NSA spying activity. Although the current system is very difficult to ensure privacy, with court orders somewhat compelling Google to reduce user’s privacy at times, this is a positive step.

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