A poster to an obscure discussion board recently described typing a particular search phrase into Google and finding nothing but bad information. Reproducing the search I determined two things: 1) that my site topped the list and 2) that the results were actually quite accurate. I’ve been hearing an increasing number of stories like this. “Cause Googling,” a variation on “vanity googling,” is suddenly becoming quite popular. But the interesting thing is that these new searchers don’t actually seem curious about the results. Has Google become our new proof text?
A few days ago a Friend forwarded a email from a Quaker discussion list from someone who had typed “plain dress Quaker” into Google. This searcher reported to the list that there was nothing good in the results and wondered aloud whether he should contact the authors of the listings to tell them the truth that plain dress still exists. Of course my pages are at the top of that search and clearly reflect the opinion that plain dress exists and is relevant to our age. Most of the top-ten Google results point to more-or-less “Conservative” Quakers, all of whom are sympathetic to plain dress. Google’s results were actually quite good.
A few months ago I attended a “listening session” on a controversial modern Quaker ritual and heard an advocate for the practice make an argument based on the positive Google search results for the term (“I looked up ‘xyz’ on Google and found…”) Here too my site tops the results but I’m not sympathetic and neither are most of the dozen people who comment on the post. Like the plain dress curmudgeon, their description of the results bore little resemblance to what I found on Google.
h3. Has Google become our new proof text?
Looking up your pet project or cause is a variation on “vanity googling,” in which you look up yourself. But the interesting thing is that these “cause googlers” don’t actually seem curious about the results. The fellow who searched for “plain dress Quaker” came to my site, according to the tracking logs, but he looked at one page and left. He didn’t follow any links and he has yet to do anything more than complain to a sympathetic list. This kind of “proof text” searcher isn’t looking to learn anything or find anything transformative; instead they just want to confirm their cause exists in the world. They (mis)use the results to confirm their worldview: whether they think of themselves as the last holdout of a dying tradition or the vanguard of some brave new synthesis, they’ll find something in the Google results to back them up.
Sincere searchers who come wanting to learn something about the issues I write about will come in via search engine and start maniacally clicking on links, looking through dozens of pages. Many of them follow this reading by sending me an excited email, leaving a comment, and/or signing up on our related discussion list. Using Google to tally our place in the world can be fun, but it’s only a parlour game and debate tactic.
h3. Tweaking the Results
As I was writing this post I got a Google-referred visit from someone searching for the “best spiritual websites.” Well if Google is the all-knowing authority, you’ve found the sixth best spiritual website on the whole entire world wide web right here (who wouldda thought?) But wait: ask Google for the “best Quaker websites” and you’ll find me listed for the top four results.
There’s such awe-worship for search engines these days that we could make up claims for ourselves, post the claims on a blog and then advertise our invented claims. For example,
“Google has declared Martin Kelley as the spiritual heir to George Fox.”
Just by writing that phrase here, we should be able to hit the search engine in a week’s time for “spiritual heir to George Fox”:google and get this page, hence making the claim legit. With Google as judge, the possibilities are endless!
h3. See also:
* “How Insiders and Seekers Use the Quaker Net”:http://www.nonviolence.org/martink/archives/000333.php
* “It’s light that makes me uncomfortable” and other Googlisms
* At least one theologian has argued that Google results for “god” constitutes “proof of His existence”:http://msnbc.msn.com/id/6144581/site/newsweek/ (found on “The Revealer”:http://www.therevealer.org/archives/today_000940.php)
* In “Nonprofit Website Design and Measurement”:http://www.nonviolence.org/martink/archives/000457.php I reproduce my websites report for my employer, Friends General Conference. I talk a lot in there about how Google is used.