It's Getting Easier to Find the Definition of 'Parasitic' Online
Ostensibly, this is the story of dictionary Web sites and their impending demise. But really, this is the story of the oxpecker. I ask your patience while I get ornithological.
Meet the oxpecker, a plucky, selfless little bird. Its life amounts -- as for so many of us -- to little more than consumption for the sake of others. The oxpecker is a helpful friend to the bigger game of the sub-Saharan grasslands. Giraffes, wildebeests and cattle all welcome oxpeckers onto their hides. The oxpeckers, meanwhile, feed off of the parasites, insects and ticks they're picking off their gracious hosts. It's a symbiotic relationship, one of those quirks of nature that keeps an ecosystem churning. You scratch my back, I'll fatten yours.
Most interesting for our purposes is the mutually beneficial partnership: The oxpecker provides a service the animal cannot manage in-house, and the animal offers the oxpecker a parasitic cornucopia. A beautiful consequence of evolution, nature organically assigning roles to different animals.
Dictionary Web sites, as you may have surmised, are akin to the oxpeckers. The only way they can sustain themselves is by borrowing resources from far larger game -- search engines, in this case. All sorts of traffic finds its way to an online dictionary through a search engine, which means that all sorts of advertising revenue depends on those clicks coming through. On the Internet, page views equal revenue, especially when you pack dozens of ads on a page, as the dictionary sites do. Without search engines feeding the dictionaries' traffic, the reference sites probably couldn't survive.
But search engines have always had the ability to evolve and start providing definitions on their own. Thus, the dictionary sites have always been in a precarious spot; their hosts could grow the equivalent of a backscratcher at any moment and put the oxpecker out of a job. And now it finally appears that search engines have had enough. Without warning, the evolution has already begun; dictionary sites are more endangered than ever.
This is the story of the rise and fall of dictionary Web sites. The fall hasn't happened, yet, but it will. Just ask the search engines that gave birth to their rise.
Let's begin with Google. The market leader in searches hasn't significantly changed the way it deals with definitions in years, and its presentation is a useful glimpse into the status quo. Open up Google in a new tab and run a search for a single, SAT-caliber word such as loquacious. Google, you'll notice, doesn't give you a definition itself, it just links off to a bunch of other dictionary sites.
The definition isn't in any of the search returns' little two-line descriptions either. That's because they're purposefully obscuring the results. Every site can suggest what to pull into those two-line descriptions. Google doesn't have to listen -- as we'll see later -- but more often than not its algorithms don't bother bypassing the hand-fed description. Dictionary sites know this and purposefully keep definitions out of the suggested description.
Keeping definitions out of search engine returns is a major business initiative. Merriam-Webster's electronic product director told me that a "majority" of its traffic comes from search engines. Whatever the exact percentage is, it would surely drop if definitions were displayed in the search returns.
This is the way that things were (and still are for Google). But it's not the way that things will be. Search engines are increasingly expected to be more than just a portal to what we need online; they are expected to provide the answers we seek.
Google's chief competitor has bought into this philosophy. Microsoft hypes its search engine, Bing, as a "decision engine." That means, relative to Google, it treats definitions in a wholly different, more selfish way. Go ahead and plug loquacious into Bing. You'll see a definition, this time pulled from Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia.
But then scroll down to the next return, from Dictionary.com, where there's something different from what you find on Google. The definition is right there in the search return. Bing has ignored Dictionary.com's recommended description and cut straight through to the good stuff. Where does Bing get off using others' content in their own skin? Microsoft offered only a boilerplate statement on some, but not all, questions I asked. Microsoft says Bing's goal is to make users happy. If that means depriving content sites of page views, so be it.