Monday, February 02, 2009

Where all roads lead

Nick Carr writes about the dominance a few have in our access to information:
What we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history's eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine.

Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia - and I admit there's much to adore - you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

It's hard to imagine that Wikipedia articles are actually the very best source of information for all of the many thousands of topics on which they now appear as the top Google search result.

What's much more likely is that the Web, through its links, and Google, through its search algorithms, have inadvertently set into motion a very strong feedback loop that amplifies popularity and, in the end, leads us all, lemminglike, down the same well-trod path - the path of least resistance. You might call this the triumph of the wisdom of the crowd. I would suggest that it would be more accurately described as the triumph of the wisdom of the mob.
Please see also my Dec 2007 post, "One Wikipedia to rule them all", which cites a 2007 study that claims that Wikipedia is the first result on about 30% of web searches.

Update: I should have remembered this earlier, but please see also Rich Skrenta's Jan 2007 post, "Winner-Take-All", where he says, among other things, that "Google is the start page of the internet."

7 comments:

Daniel Tunkelang said...

As I posted, Wikipedia isn't to blame for this state of affairs. If you want to blame anyone, blame Google.

More details at The Noisy Channel.

Gojomo said...

And if Google in-house content initiatives like Knol take off, that pesky Wikipedia third-wheel can be discarded, too!

Senzafine said...

Unfortunately, this is the direction the critical mass gravitate to. The worst part is that it winds up muffling/suppressing pertinent information.

It's why we find ourselves in a constant state of redefining ourselves...only to find that we (once again) settle for mediocrity. It's recursive.

I'd like to think that the Web was different or immune to this (which it is by design). But turns out...I'd be wrong.

It's Google/Wikipedia now, but it'll be someone else later.

Dave said...

Just because something is #1 doesn't mean it has an "information monopoly". If related Wikipedia articles filled the SERPs for lots of queries then yes, it would be a cause for concern, but the current state of play is no worse than it is with commonly SEO'd subjects that aren't dominated by Wikipedia.

A lot people are throwing the "worst is best" paradigm about, but I personally think this is just a little pejorative - if Wikipedia is approximately as accurate as Britannica and vastly more up-to-date, who are we to judge that it shouldn't hold so many of the #1 spots it does? Where's the constructive criticism?

Dave said...

P.S. speaking of where all roads lead. 5 and a half million results seems quite heterogeneous to me :)

Thatcher's Child said...

You are looking at this from the perspective of one time. Next year, you'll find that Twitter will have eaten away a little of the Google dominance.

Wikipedia is also loosing its credibility slowly. With time, things will change and a new store of easy reliable information will rise to the top.

In 1997, I used a number of search engines, and the Omnipresent danger was Microsoft.

In 1987, The omnipresent danger was Commodore, but things change.

The other aspect you have missed is that users are not too fussy about quality - they make do. Yes, Google does enough, but what people want changes with expectations. Google will mess up and the early adopters, like me in 1998, will find something better.

In 2019, Google will no longer be the power they are today and this post will seem as ridiculous as some of the things Vin Cerf was predicting 10 years ago!

jeremy said...

Unfortunately, this is the direction the critical mass gravitate to. The worst part is that it winds up muffling/suppressing pertinent information. It's why we find ourselves in a constant state of redefining ourselves...only to find that we (once again) settle for mediocrity. It's recursive.

I agree with this. This is one of the reasons one of my personal ongoing research themes has been directed toward the notion of giving users interactive control over their search experience, so that they're not completely at the mercy of the "mediocrity of the crowds".

It is a theme Daniel T, above, has been advocating a lot, too, with his HCIR workshops.

Note how Dave writes: "If related Wikipedia articles filled the SERPs for lots of queries then yes, it would be a cause for concern, but the current state of play is no worse than it is with commonly SEO'd subjects that aren't dominated by Wikipedia."

This is interesting, because he is setting the bar very low. He's saying that filling the top of the ranked lists with Wikipedia isn't any worse than filling it with SEO pages.

I personally don't accept that conclusion. I don't want my search results to be filled either with Wikipedia or SEO. I want them to be filled with relevant information.

By giving the user more control, feedback, tools, and interfaces to sift out what he or she doesn't want, there is the capability of avoiding all of these things: crowd-mediocrity, SEO, and wikipedia.