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Peer-review popularity vs. dotcom popularity

Hardin MD Notes, May 17, 2000

Eric Rumsey

High praise for Google's ability to find the best links continues to mount. Typical is a comment by one physician webmaster who says "Google is spooky." The success of Google, of course, is based largely on its innovative PageRank technology. This has been likened to an automated peer-review system, which ranks sites according to the number of links to them from other important sites.

Direct Hit is another search engine that ranks sites by their popularity. In contrast to Google's "peer-review popularity" though, Direct Hit measures the popularity of pages by their volume of use.

Liane Gouthro, in a recent article in PC World, ("Going Gaga for Google"), describes a comparison search in Google and Direct Hit -- She looks for the official Hillary Clinton Web site by doing a search for "Hillary Clinton." Both search engines find the right page as their first hit, but they differ greatly in their next few hits. The second and third hits in Google are other official Hillary pages, which might be helpful to someone doing research on her. In Direct Hit the next links are to personal or parody sites -- "Hillary Rodham Clinton Is The Sexiest Woman Alive" and "I Love Hillary Clinton." (I got similar results on May 10.)

So, what's going on here? Why does the Google "peer-review" popularity do so much better at finding the sites that serious Web users want? The title of a recent press release from Ask Jeeves (which owns Direct Hit and uses its search technology) gives a pretty good hint: "Ask Jeeves-R- Launches Webwide Navigation Services Powered by Popularity Technology to Help Companies Build Profitable, Lifetime Relationships With Customers." It's clear from this headline that Direct Hit's brand of popularity is "dotcom popularity," designed to lead users to sites that want to sell them something, rather than sites that will help them find answers to questions. (Not surprisingly, the lengthy press release says nothing whatsoever about the nature of the "popularity technology" that's mentioned in the headline.)

Bill and Hillary, continued ...

Interestingly, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, in an early academic article, also use the illustrious Clinton family as an example of the problems of the large portal search engines. Searching for "Bill Clinton" yields top-ranking hits on the order of "Bill Clinton joke of the day." Brin and Page's dry comment is on the mark: "While such results are often amusing and expand users' horizons, they are often frustrating and consume precious time."

Google smart people

Writing way back in 1998, when Google was getting started, Scott Rosenberg sounds remarkably prescient, striking the themes about Google that have been repeated many times since, especially the idea that we discuss above, that Google cuts through the jungle of dotcom websites that are shouting to sell us their wares to find the real information that we need.

Google ... is important -- as a sign, amid the profusion of look-alike portals, that there's still plenty of room for improvement in the basic technologies we use on the Web every day. If the portals themselves don't generate innovation, smart people elsewhere will. Commerce is a big driving force in how the Web evolves, but creativity is another. Just as imaginative marketers will keep finding ways to sell us more stuff, inventive programmers will keep finding ways to reduce noise and confusion online and help us all find what we're looking for. ... The irony here is that the big portal sites are the ones, increasingly, making it harder to use the Web: They're under such pressure to turn a profit to justify their market valuations that their pages have become crowded, blinking arrays of commercial distractions. Meanwhile, they're failing to drive forward the technology at the root of their business

That a couple of grad students could build a better search engine than a whole raft of media and technology companies with stock-market valuations in the billions does not speak well of how these firms are spending their budgets. ... Which is one more reason to distrust the conventional view that the portals have the future of the Web sewn up. There's something ultimately dumb about these all-things-to-all-people sites in a medium whose greatest strength is the ability to be specific things to specific people. If the portals can't even build a better search engine, I am not betting on their ability to control an industry as fast-moving, innovative and metamorphic as the Internet -- next year or any year.

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn't it? So far, Google has done a good job of remaining above the fray of the "crowded, blinking arrays of commercial distractions." They have begun having banner ads at the top of their pages, but so far at least, Google keeps its uncanny ability to find the best links. But what's especially encouraging about Rosenberg's piece is that it's only incidentally about Google. What it's really about is the ability of the Web to release the creative powers of Web users -- If Google "goes commercial," and becomes a portal site, then some other smart people will come along and help us to find the information we need.

Google | Direct Hit

For more:
Google is spooky, John G. Faughnan, A Family Physician's Web Starter
Going Gaga for Google, Liane Gouthro, PC World, April 20, 2000
Ask Jeeves-R- Launches Webwide Navigation Service, Yahoo Finance, Apr 24, 2000
The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, S Brin & L Page, 7th Int WWW Conf, 1998
Yes, there is a better search engine, Scott Rosenberg, SALON, Dec. 21, 1998

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