It seems like a lifetime ago when the Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid” first reminded us that the ease of search and the accessibility of pedestrian technology was causing us to lose our memories.
Neo-luddist, nostalgic doomsday articles like that are at a lull for now. Everybody loves the iPhone. And the iPad. All the people who were weeping that they were going to miss print books have pivoted and are celebrating the fact that digital actually may have saved the publishing industry.
But now that we’ve all accepted technology as an essential 5th limb, it seems to me that we ought to take a more active role in its development, presentation and practices. If it’s going to be that omnipresent – and more importantly – omnipotent, it needs to be held to a standard of accountability.
A recent TechCrunch post reported that Google was running sponsored ads for Zagat above mobile search results for Yelp. Google recently bought out Zagat, which was once the definitive (print) guide to dining. Now it’s using professionally-done Zagat reviews to beef up on content for its Yelp competitor, Google Places.
So someone on her mobile phone searches for Yelp and sees a sponsored result for Zagat. If you’re anything like anyone else in the universe, you read this article and your response is something along the lines of,”skeeeetchy….”
But of course, after that initial gut reaction, you ask, “is this kosher?” Then, if you’re me, you scroll down to read the Facebook comments on the article, to see what people who know more than you do (aka people who sit around commenting on TechCrunch articles) think about it.
Well, fact number one is that Google has an AdWord policy saying it’s illegal to infringe on someone else’s trademark by by running ads against it, which if Yelp was trademarked, would definitely make this illegal.
Fact number two is that while the aforementioned people who comment on TechCrunch articles may know more than you do, they are still confused, and they are so busy arguing over minor details, they’ve lost sight of the real problem (in my humble, humble opinion.)
Ironically, the TechCrunch commenters seemed to spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out whether this ad counted as manipulating search results. They couldn’t decide if paid results were part of the algorithm, whether there was a monopoly issue or how Google got the ads there.
In other words, they didn’t know a lot of things you assumed they would.
Why so much confusion? Because a) most people are stoopid and b) many people, even now, can’t tell the difference between the paid ads and the real results.
(I know – it’s shocking. A few years ago I was a writer at the Website findingDulcinea, which was largely founded on the principle that people can’t search for sh*t. The site ending up pivoting and becoming a more education-based resource, but after reading all those comments I sort of want to call up my old boss and say, “I think you were right, nobody knows how to use Google.”)
So, long story short as you all know, (because I only have extremely intelligent readers), Google didn’t manipulate any search results. But as far as I’m concerned, they did something worse. They took advantage of people’s stupidity and the interface people were using – mobile.
We’re getting to a place where our understanding of right and wrong needs to incorporate a more nuanced assessment of user experience and interface. The reality is, several years ago, there was nothing wrong with buying ad space against a competitor. If I’ve got a lemonade stand and you buy space on a billboard behind me advertising pink lemonade – more power to you.
But in today’s world, companies like Google who created our aesthetic and technological experiences also have the power to use them against us, because these arbitrary designs are the main funnel for the dissemination of knowledge in our world. They control how we digest information, and the way we digest it powerfully impacts our understanding. Google made an obvious mistake this time, but it’s a caveat that we can’t be passive about the way in which we consume things.
Which, come to think of it, is probably how restaurant reviews started in the first place. And it all comes full circle….