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Google's Effect on Everyday Life

Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2004; 11:00 AM

How has Google and other Internet search engines changed everyday life? Will historians look back at the pre-Google era as the Dark Ages of knowledge dissemination? Are we witnessing a monumental breakthrough akin to moveable type or just another way for kids to cheat on book reports?

Washington Post staff writer Joel Achenbach discussed his recent article on Google, Internet search engine uses and its impact on libraries.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Joel Achenbach: Good morning! I hope you've had a chance to read the Google story. It started out (back in, I think, August) as a piece just making the point that students use the Internet rather than library books. But someone pointed out that this could have been written 5 years ago. So I kept revising the story, nudging it toward the present day, eventually getting it into the 21st century, and I now can say with great pride that my Google story is probably only about a year or two out of date. In any case, I've gotten a fair bit of heat from research librarians on this, who thought the piece was a slam against them. I didn't think it was at all, but it hit a nerve I guess. I revere librarians and spent gobs of time in libraries and strongly believe (and this was the original point of the piece before I brought it up to date) that people ought to make use of human mediators of information and should browse bookshelves and not just use Google and other search engines. so...comments and questions please.

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Washington, D.C.: Your article is headlined "Search for Tomorrow" but you really only focus on Google. What about all of the other companies developing search technology? For example, Teoma's algorithm, how it differs from Google and how it offers features that Google doesn't provide. The same thing goes for Vivisimo.

Joel Achenbach: The article does focus on Google but I tried to make it clear that other search engines may obviate it. Near the very beginning, the "nut graf" states:
"The question is, who's going to build the next mousetrap? What will it do? The laboratories of Internet companies are furiously trying to come up with the next generation of search engine. Whatever it is and whatever it's called, it will likely make the current Google searches seem as antiquated as cranking car engines by hand."

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Will future historians even find the remains of information from the Internet? Web sites die. Data stored on discs begin deterioriating after ten years. Even our paper disintegrates at one of the fastest rates in paper history.

Joel Achenbach: There's something called the Internet Archive (run by Brewster Kahle) that I think is designed to put all of human knowledge on the Web, and that includes old Web sites. I did a big story a few years ago about the problem of information getting lost, degrading, etc., and the issues of digital storage, its a significant threat but i guess i assume that, yes, people will figure out a way to transfer the data from medium to medium so that its not lost.

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Washington, D.C.: Any clue when the verb "to google" will enter the OED? Are there copyright issues involved?

(Disclaimer: I realize that you have no control over what actually goes into the OED.)

Joel Achenbach: Apparently "to Google" started appearing sometime in the year 2000, fyi. My guess is that the OED is kind of stuffy about things things though.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Google and other similar search engines merely appear to be an increment, step, building block or tool in the ongoing growth of human development. They permit ready access to information previously restricted to visits to libraries, museums and the like. They are significant, but I believe it inaccurate to oversell their importance. It is no more helpful to a identify a given search engine such as Google, or for that matter search engines generally, as a single invention as it is to name one individual as the inventor of baseball.

Joel Achenbach: You mean it wasnt Abner Doubleday???

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Joel Achenbach: Let me answer that last posting: I loved the first search engines but no one "Altavistaed" a prospective date 8 years ago. Right? I focus on Google because, combined with the expansion of the Web, the googling experience is something qualitatively different than what people could do just a few years ago.

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Farragut West, Washington, D.C.: Google had a somewhat humorous effect on my life. I'd been dating a woman for a couple of weeks when she abruptly called and end to it, with no explanation. Through a friend of a friend I found out that she had googled my name and concluded that I was a convicted burglar. I shared the same name and city with the felon, but my name is fairly common. It seems that just like a small amount of intelligence, a small amount of Internet knowledge can be dangerous.

Joel Achenbach: Bad Information on the Internet strikes again. And this one hurts. [I hope you got some good silverware and jewelry in the heist.]

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think there's the potential for a monumental backlash against Google because people are reaching critical mass regarding invasion of privacy? You can get anyone's home address, phone number, directions to their house, real estate records, and other formerly tough-to-obtain information now with the click of a mouse. Do you think privacy groups will say "enough is enough" and try to rein in Google in the name of, say, protecting kids from sexual predators?

Joel Achenbach: Maybe someone out there can weigh in on an important question: Should Google be regulated? And yes, the privacy issue is huge, particularly given that the next generation of search engines (as I say in the story) will potentially know even more about us. Here's what the story says:
And lurking over the future of such programs is the dilemma of privacy. There's valuable information in the way people use the Web, but they may not want others, or even a machine, to pay close attention to every place they venture. How do you create an intelligent agent that knows when to look away? How do you avoid what Horvitz calls the "monster possibilities"?

What everyone wants is a reasonable, discreet intelligent agent, like an English butler. It should be one that can get things accomplished, to take the extra steps even without being prompted.

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Oakton, Va.: Hi Joel,

Given that Google and Yahoo! are now severing their relationship as Yahoo! prepares to go search to search against the Goog, how do you foresee events playing out. (Thrown into the mix is Microsoft working on their own engine for MSN which currently uses Yahoo! -- which uses/used Google).

washingtonpost.com: Yahoo Begins Rolling Out Its Own Search Technology (Reuters, Feb. 18)

Joel Achenbach: Google doesnt have customers locked in very well, so some people analyzing the competition worry that it could get steamrolled. Someone told me, "The next Google is Microsoft." But I don't know enough to handicap the competition. Someone who covers Tech as a beat would know much better.

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Baltimore, Md.: Good morning! Full disclosure: I haven't read your article. I have no idea what you're talking about. But I did read your opening comment here and wanted to related this story: I was looking for a poem, of all things, and hunted through Google extensively to see if I could find it. I couldn't. So I went to my local library. And I love libraries and hate that kids don't know how to do research off the internet. The reference librarian went through a couple of library-type databases and couldn't find it. So guess what she did: she looked on Google! I found this ironic to say the least.

Joel Achenbach: That's hilarious! Actually Google is pretty good for finding a poem. (I am told that that it will sometimes show as a prominent result a place that sells term papers to plagiarizing college students, but I need to find out more about that).

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Washigton, D.C.: I like being Googled by dates. There is someone with the same name as me who is a doctor that has many accomplishments and awards.

Joel Achenbach: Why bother achieving?

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Arlington, Va.: When I submit my name to Google Images, it returns a picture of a man raking manure. And no, it's not me.

People check each other out with Google; I can't help but think that the manure man is hindering my dating.

Joel Achenbach: Women LIKE a guy who knows how to manure a garden. That's often near the top of their list of desirable qualities.

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Washington, D.C.: Joel,

Your article was mostly positive on the impact of search engines, but what about the possibility that students / citizens are losing the sense that one needs a critical eye when consuming the info gobs out there?

It's almost as if we need a new type of discipline, to instruct on how to navigate and critically evaluate the vast information space. Could this not be one avenue of employment for the "human mediators" you mention? I find that it is common for folks to accept information on face value, rather than deploy the critical thinking skills for information to become knowledge.

Thanks.

Joel Achenbach: Yes, and the name for those mediators is "reference librarians." I think one reason the librarians got mad about the piece (and if there are any out there, please join in) is that librarians often are the BEST users of digital databases. For example, here at the Post, the News Research folks are brilliant at finding anything and everything on the Web and the Dark Web and the Even Darker Web, and I rely on them constantly, including for help with this story.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: In your article you state that "the dream is to make it easier not only for humans, but also machines, to search the Web." Doesn't that just complicate the problem? If the mediator becomes a program, how clearly can a query be stated? Aren't there key decisions made in the formulation of the question that can influence the answer?

Joel Achenbach: The point is, the Semantic Web would put tags on sites such that both people and programs could understand the context of the site much better. And lets say you want a plane ticket: You unleash your intelligent agent and it goes out and finds what you want and makes it all happen and doesnt require you to jump in and say, no, not Arlington, Texas, I want Arlington, Virginia.

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RE: Indy inuendo: "It is no more helpful to a identify a given search engine such as Google, or for that matter search engines generally, as a single invention as it is to name one individual as the inventor of baseball."

I'm confused in that I don't understand if the poster is complaining about the singling out of "Google" or the singling out of "search engines" as the topic.

Either way, I'm not sure how valid the complaint is. We single out the "combustionable engine" when discussing progress. We also single out "Henry Ford" when discussing the assembly line.

I think we can all agree that all progress is a culmination of what has progressed before (and at times simultaneously) but that there are significant points in that progress that bear examination and at times praise or criticism based upon their impact.

When someone mentions search the web, there are only a few browsers that come to mind (ie: Netscape and IE) and an equally few search engines. Google is among the forefront in both name recognition and useage.

Joel Achenbach: Precisely! Google's Page Rank was a very good idea at just the right time.

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Anonymous: In fact AltaVista is still on the web and offers many search features not available from Google. That said, AltaVista lost its focus in trying to be all things to all people. Google seems to be doing the same thing.

Joel Achenbach: yes, we make that point in the article. Yahoo DID manage to be all things to all people very successfully.

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Washington, D.C.: If I could have a "grumpy old man" moment...

A poster wrote: "I love libraries and hate that kids don't know how to do research off the internet."

My generation didn't know how to do library research BEFORE the internet, so I wouldn't blame the problems of kids today on the net.

And as someone who loves information and doing research -- in libraries AND online -- I can say with confidence that hardly anyone really knows how to do research online any more than they know how to do it in libraries. I can't count the number of times I've helped out a hapless friend by just making some commonsense tweaks to their search terms.

Joel Achenbach: The avg. number of search terms is 2.1 in Google. Most of us dont really know how to use Google. And I'm STILL trying to learn how to use the Library of Congress (the real one) as well as its wonderful online version.

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Olney, Md.: Joel, When was the last time you used a web engine other than Google? Also, Can you use Google in a more advanced manner than just typing in a few words?

washingtonpost.com: Google Advanced Search

Joel Achenbach: I find that Google works fine for me and other than Yahoo I generally dont use other search engines, though many people swear by others.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Joel, I apologize that I haven't read your original article but I am a librarian and know all too well by experience the ongoing challenge of convincing students that 'Googling' will not bring in all that they need. I am very confident that my profession will not be replaced by search engines any time soon.

What concerns me is the increasing commercialization of Google and other search engines. When I use google, I find it annoying that I have to scroll down through commercial web sites that paid for 'first' posting. This is one area that I think might benefit from Internet regulation. What do you think?

Joel Achenbach: Your profession not only won't be replaced by search engines, but its a booming field. I talked to a number of librarians for the story but didnt' really take it in that direction (other than the part that seems to have got people upset), and one fact jumped out, that people are racing to get into the field of information retrieval or whatever you call it (knowledge management? library sciences?).

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New York, N.Y.: Google is often one of the first resources librarians use. I'm a librarian and do reference work from time to time and use Google extensively. The difference though (perhaps the reason some librarians are fearful of the technology as used by most people) is that Google isn't the only resource I use. Too many students use Google (and the Internet) as their first and only resource. And there's so much more information out there!

Joel Achenbach: SOME students apparently think that a Google search is the same thing as research. It's a great way to START.

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Vienna, Va.: Google's PageRank is otherwise known as link analysis. All other web engines use link analysis now. Actually, the concept is based on something librarians have been using for years called citation analysis. In fact, if you've heard the phrase "publish or perish" in higher education, this is what they are talking about. Citation analysis is one factor many universities used to determine promotion.

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for the note: fyi, thats what it says in my article. Citation analysis. You should check it out.

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Washington, D.C.: The Internet Archive currently has an archive of over 30 BILLION web pages back to 1996. In fact, they recently relased a service that allows you to search 11 billion by keyword.

Joel Achenbach: Someone told me that in the future it will be possible to store ALL HUMAN KNOWLEDGE including music, films, etc. in a box that would fit under your desk. The piece doesnt get into it, but there's a revolution in data storage going on.

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Arlington, Va.: I miss card catalogs! Some of my favorite books I found "by accident" while looking for something else with a similar name and/or subject. I used to spend hours just going through the cards.

That said, it worries me how our attention-challenged youth don't know or can't know the pleasures of a successful search for information that is hard won.

Joel Achenbach: We hate the callow youth, dont we. Especially how easy it is for them to stay up late.
Yes I miss card catalogs too, though the BEST is just browsing the shelves of a good library.

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Bethesda, Md.: Drudge is stating today that his site is getting more hits than Google's search engine. Is that correct?

Joel Achenbach: Consider the source.

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Chelmsford, Mass.: There's debate that extensions matter in ranking, i.e. .com over .us. Do extensions have anything to do with ranking?

Joel Achenbach: no idea -- i'm sure Google would tweak the algorithm if something trivial snarled the Page Rank.

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Chicago, Ill. (Or Glen Ellyn, or Aurora. I'm kinda mobile): Greetings,
Adding another billion pieces of drivel to a keyword search may help to improve some situations, but might just add to the lack of order.

When I pay LexisNexis (they changed their name again... used to be Lexis-Nexis and before that Lexis Nexis. I don't care, but they do) an hourly or per search charge, I'm searching a database that claims to be four or five times the size of the Web. Taking their portion (and the Thomson/Westlaw, Dow Jones & related competitors) out, I end up searching minutes for information that would take hours from open Web sources.

A researcher checking out how librarians use the Internet came to the conclusion that I kept about 40,000 Web sites in my head. She thought that was extraordinary until I pointed out that reference librarians at the top of their game keep at least that many books in their head.

Dave Coverly had a great cartoon. It showed a traditional librarian at a traditional reference desk. The identifying sign for the person "Reference Librarian" was in the garbage can, replaced with a sign that said "Search Engine."

Keeping up is a challenge. Then again, I use the tune "Hit me with your best shot" as my theme song when a challenging question comes up.

Joel Achenbach: I'm impressed with the 40K sites in your head. Are you sure you're not a software program?

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Faster! Easier!: Joel, I teach an Internet Literacy course at a major local university, and I have a couple of comments:
First, the people I teach rave about how everything is at their fingertips, everything is faster, easier, etc, etc, but the bad thing is that they sit at their computers all day/all night, and don't go out places and mix and rub elbows, and all that. We're turning out a generation of cave creatures, that aren't going to be able to interact with anything but a monitor.
Second, given the un-spellchecked written work they turn in, I despair for the state of modern literature within the next 10 years. Most of them can't put a coherent sentence together, correctly spell even simple words, punctuate, or organize their thoughts from paragraph to paragraph. The spelling's not so bad when they turn things in on paper -- the word processing programs' spell checkers are pretty good -- but work submitted online is a disaster. And these are smart people.

Joel Achenbach: Great point. And there's a larger issue here, about how "time saving" technology makes us all more rushed, and "conveniences" have made society a place of cave dwellers who wind up stressed out and on medication (if they have time to visit a shrink).

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Chicago, Ill. (and Glenn Ellyn & Aurora...): Greetings,
As one of them "reference librarians" that have been mentioned, hopefully they actually READ the article. It has been sparking a bit of debate on the listservs.

What the librarians understand and build internally is a taxonomy... an organization to the information we see. Dewey classification or Library of Congress Classification are one of the tools that we use, but we are also trained (or learn) to click into information. Sometimes the click involves a mouse, sometimes a book, sometimes a synapse. Usually a synapse is involved either way.

Off to answer another impossible question. Back in two minutes.

Joel Achenbach: hi again. you say it has sparked a "debate"? then how come all my email is universally condemnatory and says...wait, here's a sample line: "As a writer at the Washington Post, home of
Woodward and Bernstein, you should be deeply ashamed." [I am but only of my hairstyle]

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Re: Drudge: FYI, that poster had it wrong. Drudge is not saying anything. The link provided is for alexa and seems to be showing the top news sites of the web. Drudge is one rank above Google News, not the Google search engine.

Joel Achenbach: Let's set the record straight then.

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Oakton, Va.: How successful is Google? Just a few years ago its was natural for people to talk about their favorite search engines. Today, you feel embarrassed for anyone who doesn't use Google.

Joel Achenbach: My Mom doesnt use Google. But ... well, yeah, I guess that does embarrass me. I will mention this to her.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Joel. You've made me and probably a lot of other people curious about Google. A question we need to ask about any tool or invention that becomes so powerful so quickly, is: What are its hidden defects, the insidiously systematic kind that we don't realize are there until it's too late? (Picture the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge.) If the invention is a search engine, the question becomes: What is it NOT showing us? You mentioned that most books are not online, and that Google doesn't index pay sites such as the OED. I don't expect it to. I'm more concerned with finding out if Google is actively censoring certain kinds of content on the Web, or (in a less paranoid vein) whether its "PageRank" algorithm is invisibly shuffling certain webpages to the bottom of the list that we might prefer to be at the top. Thanks for a very informative article.

Joel Achenbach: They DO punish web sites that "game" the results (by, for example, creating lots of sites that link to the commercial site)...I know that it's in Google's interests to have results that people trust, and I think most people DO trust Google's results, but this is worth exploring further, perhaps in a follow-up article. I hear rumblings of distrustfulness out there and the regulatory issue is interesting.

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Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada: If Google searches pass through one portal, as it were, how can we be certain that some information has not been deliberately 'disappeared'? I believe we need guarantees that many other search engines are included in Google's sweep, so diversity insures that corporate, criminal and government powers cannot influence our freedom of information.

Joel Achenbach: Actually this is an argument for getting your information from many sources. The Washington Post being the best, of course.

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Ashburn, Va.: I was just thinking this morning, how did I search the Internet before Google-era, after reading article about kid finding himself abducted on Google? What made Google click?

These are the things which really made me and others forget about other search engines.

1. Simplicity of the Web site. No-nonsense ads, categories etc. are not crammed into the main page.

How long does it take to enter a search word in other sites like Yahoo or MSN? To find the search box itself takes more than a second and then you have to put the cursor in the text box i.e., move your hand away from keyboard, move mouse, click in the text box and then start typing. In Google, the cursor is already in the search box and you see only the search box. The only delay, I see, is the time taken by user to start typing the search phrase/word and pressing Enter.

One of main things you learn when designing User Interfaces (via experience and classes) is to keep number of interactions between user and interface to bare minimum, and don't cram too many things in one page or menu. This increases the productivity of the user. I can rant along about UI design forever, but the point is Google is simple to use.

And of course 2. Logic and efficiency of the search.

washingtonpost.com: US teen 'discovers own kidnap' (BBC, Feb. 19)

Joel Achenbach: This sounds a wee bit like a post from Sergey Brin or Larry Page but I think its basically right, that Google's simple home page works well in a society where we have a limited spotlight of attention and every second counts.

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Toronto, Canada: I love google and use it several times most days, but I think it's biggest limitation is one you point out in the article -- the limits of the Internet itself. I've been searching for several years for a specific book, the title and author of which I can't remember. I've tried keyword searches, and posting queries on different sites (including google's ask an expert site), but my Internet resources have run dry. There's simply no more searching to be done out there.

However, I asked a librarian in my home town if she could help me find the book, and while we haven't found it yet, she's come up with dozens of avenues of inquiry that simply aren't possible on the Internet. So far, she's interviewed local historians, tracked down some of the people specifically mentioned in the book and asked them if they remember the events. She hasn't found that book yet, but she's not close to giving up. When she does find it, it'll probably be as a result of information that's simply not out there on the internet yet.

Joel Achenbach: I am the author of that book. It's called "Captured by Aliens."

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Arlington, Va.: As a librarian on these lists I can tell you the reason it's all negative is because those of us that liked it are probably too lazy to email you, that and the people that were most rabidly mad at you kept saying how they were too mad to actually read the whole thing. Criticizing before reading the whole thing. Argh. Made me ashamed of my whole profession. I liked your article--keep up the interesting writing!

Joel Achenbach: Thanks! I feel bad that anyone thought it was a slam against librarians since I am utterly dependent on them all the time and consider them heroes of the 21st century.

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OED: The OED enters an item when it appears in 2+ official publications. I am sure to Google will be in the next release and may already be in the CD version.

Joel Achenbach: Is nothing sacred.

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Washington, D.C.: Grumpy (30 year-)old man again...

Re: Arlington's comments, Yes, the unexpected discoveries via card catalog are delightful.

But think of the very nature of the internet! For every search, even many well-executed and narrowly-contrued searches, you still get tons of random links.

And then if you go onto one page and follow a link to another page, and then follow another link to another page, etc., you can still encounter a whole array of information you never expected to find.

So yes, libraries are great, but please don't fall into the age-old trap of saying, "It was better back in MY day." Today's kids are going to be saying the same thing in 25 years anyway.

Joel Achenbach: I have a hard time following the logic of a few postings in succession.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Do real researchers -- scientists and engineers -- use anything to search online documents: patents, scientific proceedings, engineering transactions, abstracts, policy reports, technical presentations?

Google seems awfully limited when you get used to it.

Thanks much.

Joel Achenbach: I talked to a scientist yesterday who says that every morning he looks at a single web site that contains all the physics papers published around the world. Thats worth noting, that a good site might obviate the need for a search. Like, if you read the style section of the Post i'm not sure you need any other information source. [For the record, i get all my sports news from The New York Review of Books.]

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Joel Achenbach: I believe that's about it. I believe we are done for now. Thank you for joining the conversation. It flirted with substantiveness, I thought. I would not suggest that it rank very high on a Google search of "Future of search engines" but neither was it a complete waste of human energy. And that meets my standards. Anyway, see you next time...cheers, Joel

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Washington, D.C.: Effective web research requires some careful use of search terms, knowing how engines work, etc. I've been doing it since 1993 or so (and WAIS and gopher before that), and I'm pretty sure I can find Toronto's book given what information he/she has. If Toronto wants to send an email address to Mr. Achenbach, I'll provide mine to him for an exchange. This is for my own enjoyment, no fee or anything else.

If this is posted, and Toronto agrees in a post, I'll email Mr. Achenbach my address.

Joel Achenbach: Toronto, email me at achenbachj@washpost.com and we'll help you out. That's why we're here...
goodbye folks...

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