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Friday, July 18, 2008

Google Diggs it, but should we?

We all love Digg, right? It’s pure online democracy, letting us choose what constitutes news in the world today. It creates an alternative to the big story sources followed by the masses, right?

But what happens when one of those “big sources” swipes Digg’s idea?

Check out what Google is up to. It’s currently bucket testing a new search feature that lets users decide which results they “like” and “dislike.” Tired of Perez Hilton showing up when you’re seeking news on Paris? No problem – you can relegate Perez to the bottom of your search results at the click of a button. Users can just as easily arrange for their preferred sites to appear first in results. They can also write miniature reviews – positive or negative comments on a given source in addition to the “yay” or “nay” marker they assign. Quite Diggish in its flavor, don’t you think?

The immediate reaction may to be celebrate anything remotely resembling Digg’s concept. Letting users prioritize their Google searches obviously has major benefits; searches could become far more efficient, particularly for users in industries that require lots of research via a select group of databases. A sports columnist, for example, may have a few trusted sources for his or her big stories – say, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. The feature would be especially useful in this field since alternative sources – bloggers or upstart sites – may have false or unreliable information.

However, once we venture outside fields like journalism, I’m not so sure search has changed for the better here. No-name news generators are less trustworthy, yes, but sometimes they do provide valuable information that can’t be found elsewhere. Which site is more likely to help you fix your Xbox 360 console at home, without paying a dime for repairs – the blog Xbox 360 3 Red Lights Fix or xBox.com? And which is more likely to get “Dugg” and pushed to the top of the search results?

The kneejerk reaction may be to say “Matt, you’ve got it all wrong. The whole point of the Digg system is to help get the little guys higher in the results. We have the power to do it.” But I’m not sure how true that is in the case of search, for two reasons.

For one, the Digg/new Google search process is incestuous; like blogging and twittering, it’s all too often – even primarily – an echo-chamber activity. It favours the savviest, most socially connected users. People in computer-oriented fields may thrive in this arena, having their friends give them glowing search-result reviews, but big-company employees can do the same. Also, the more naďve users who don’t know much about networking will likely have their voices squashed, buried in the depths of search results. So-called “peer to peer” search isn’t new; perhaps these realities are why it foundered in its first wave years ago.

Secondly, and importantly, the new Google system would have a crucial difference from Digg: it would be more oriented toward the masses and less toward the Internet-savvy types – the types who know about Digg. In theory, the Google rating system gives people the power to boost whatever sources they find relevant. That’s true but, for the masses, the big companies are what’s relevant. Will most of the people who get ahold of the rating system be more likely to boost the big, obvious choices like CNN.com? Especially if small armies of fake enthusiasts are busily seeding the heck out of the comments? Depending on how it plays out, the self-applied moniker “the most trusted name in news” becomes self-reinforcing, fueled by the budget it takes to have the chutzpah to keep repeating that first-party pat on the back every day.

I should stop before I venture into Chicken Little territory. Clearly, applying the Digg formula to Google search has its benefits. It’s not so much that I worry about too many people using closed minds to rate things, but about the potential for gamesmanship to keep quality niche sources as buried as ever, unless they get involved in the same time-consuming game of creating ersatz cheering sections. In other words, what looks like democracy and the opportunity for undiscovered long tail stuff to bubble up to the fore, isn’t, necessarily. And the drawbacks that come with that promise on Digg itself may be magnified on a mass market site like Google.

Posted by Matt Larkin




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