Start the Engine

Issue section: 

Corporations are finding new ways to dominate search indexes.

How big is the internet? How many websites are there? According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Google's search index searched over 4 billion pages in early 2004. By the end of last year the number of pages had doubled to over 8 billion. Given such a vast amount of information, successfully searching the internet becomes a task in itself - and the search engines allowing you to do this have become hotly contested areas for business and other websites. If your search engine takes off - and Google processes in excess of 200 million searches every day - there are riches to be made.

Google for instance recently overtook eBay as the biggest online company. In the last three months of last year they made over $200 million profit. Other multinationals are greedily eyeing the search engine business, not least Microsoft who unveiled their search engine last November.

To keep itself ahead of the game, Google is being forced to innovate all the time, with features like their image and news searches now well established. Less well known is the more recent 'Google Local' which offers to locate nearby services. Given that the service is restricted to the US, it's a somewhat disingenuous name, but it does show how more internet-based services are arriving in the mainstream. However, given that Google uses ordering pizza online as the main example of how the service works, they possibly still see it as something used by the stereotypical computer nerd.

However, using any search engine for more than basic information requires a level of skill. The results obtained from Google (and other search engines) are complicated by adverts generated on the basis of words in the user's search.

For instance, imagine you were using Yahoo!'s search engine to find information about the film The Motorcycle Diaries. Type Motorcycle Diaries into the search box, and you will get pages of results. However, look closely and you will see that the first result on Yahoo! is a paid advert by a company selling movie posters. Google is even worse - the same search brings up eight adverts for DVD shops and the like.

This confusion about the results produced by search engines has led to some criticism - not least because a recent survey, the 'Pew Internet and American Life Project' reports that only 18 percent of adult web users can tell the difference between paid-for search results and 'unbiased' answers. Only 38 percent of users are even aware that this distinction exists.

While it is patronising to say, as the author does, that the survey is surprising given that the same people would be able to tell the difference between a television programme and an advert, the survey does show that many people still have little knowledge about the capabilities of the internet.

With another recent survey showing that, contrary to popular belief, adults are actually better at using the internet than children, surely any New Labour politician attracted to the idea of the 'Information Society' should start campaigning to make the use of the internet a core subject after the next election.

Readers may have noticed my recent championing of the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, which is innovative in that it opens up its editing and writing to everyone, rather than a few specialists. It's been brought to my attention that Wikipedia has a number of sister sites including Wikiquote which, as you might imagine, is a compendium of quotes run on the same ethos as the encyclopedias. However, it's just getting started, and the pages for Lenin and Trotsky are woefully inadequate. So if you fancy taking part, and know your revolutionary quotes, why not give them a hand?