Does Google Like Me?
IEEE Spectrum Magazine, November 2004

Why do I care whether Google likes me or not? It’s just a bunch of know-nothing computers clustered together for warmth. But, alas, that big pile of silicon has become the arbiter of all that matters in this age of information. Every piece of data lives in fame or dies in obscurity according to the whims of its ranking system. Hence my worry: does Google like me and what I write, or have I been relegated to that giant dustbin of bits so far down the ranking system that it will never be seen by a human being?

As has become the custom these days, I occasionally “google” someone whose name is unfamiliar to me. I assume that Google’s ranking has directed me to the most relevant and informative web pages about that other person. About me, however, Google doesn’t have a clue. A search on my name produces about 1.8 million hits out of the 4 billion pages that Google claims to have studied and ranked in about 0.2 seconds. I am impressed with the speed, but not with the results.

This isn’t me, I cry out to Google! Its ranking has produced various weird references to things I wish I hadn’t written, followed by pages that mention me in the most incidental of contexts, and then to a vast multitude of pages that have nothing whatsoever to do with me. Please, Mr Google, I ask mute cyberspace, why not just refer them to my home page? But no, maybe my home page is somewhere down past the million mark in its list of matches. Not even I am going to get there.

Now to be honest, this is partly a problem in semantics, which Google doesn’t understand very well yet. “Bob” is an entirely different person than “Robert”, and he is the one with the web site. Like millions of other amateurs, I put together my own little web site a couple of years ago. But after I put my site on line, no one came. Google didn’t know that I existed, and so neither did anyone else. My own family couldn’t find me. It was humiliating.

After almost a year of this nothingness, a Google robot must have stumbled upon my site. It probably made a wrong turn in one of its nightly forays. The next day visitors began to appear, probably through happenstance and the mistyping of queries. For whatever reason, it was most gratifying to me. It was like secretly seeing my book in a bookstore.

Now that Google knew about me, I began to worry about its opinion. Silly me. I would check with Google on various search terms that I thought should relate to my site and see where my site was ranked. Sometimes I couldn’t find any listing to my site, and on other occasions I would find myself far down the list. Then came the thrilling day when I tried a particular query and saw that my site listed first out of about a million matches. I imagined it would be like seeing a favorable review of one of my books in the New York Times. Google liked me! Or at least it did for this particular magic search phrase.

The next day I mentioned this Google ranking to a friend. He said, “But everyone is number one at something.” Well, that was certainly deflating! Ever since, I’ve been thinking about that remark. If you search an exact, unique phrase from your website, you should indeed be first in the ranking. The question is how generic you can get with search terms and still be listed highly. If it takes more than two or three words to get a match to your site, few people will come. Moreover, it’s a moving target. A week later I had fallen to the second page for that magic search phrase. And if I substituted a perfectly good synonym for one of the words, references to my site disappeared completely. Google’s admiration is but fleeting and fickle.

Maybe none of this matters. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the number of pages on my site, the number of pages searched by Google, and the number of daily searches by all search engines. If it were all totally random, I calculated the mean and standard deviation of daily visits I should expect. Probably it’s a coincidence, but those are exactly the statistics that I see on my site. Maybe it’s all a giant lottery in the sky. The Google computers are laughing to themselves as they send people to random places.

So why do I care what Google thinks? I don’t know, but I just do. I can’t help myself.

Robert Lucky