Searching just isn't what it used to be.
Last week, there was much braying about a report concerning how we remember -- or fail to remember -- information that's readily available online. The researchers confirmed what most of us already know: Google is making us forgetful.
The truth is that over the past few years, most of us have adjusted the storage space in our gray matter to dump trivia, such as the dates of Napoleon's various invasions, in favor of hopefully more important information, such as why Napoleon invaded various countries. When speed dialing came along, for example, I suddenly stopped memorizing friends' phone numbers. Why waste the neurons on something that's available at your finger tips?
No, the real trouble with search engines, in particular Google, isn't that it's making us stupid, it's that it's giving us stupid results. Sorting through the digital flotsam and jetsam of the World Wide Web is no easy matter to be sure, but it seems that with each passing week, Google's search results become more disappointing.
1. Faulty algorithms
Some of this is directly the fault of the algorithms -- the rules and formulas -- that Google uses to rank its results. For example, Wikipedia is far too often at or near the top of any arbitrary search. The site is far from authoritative (students are constantly told not to use Wikipedia as a source), yet Google still gives it top billing.
In an attempt to give us what it thinks we want, Google also often filters and sorts results based on other information about us. For example, traveling this summer I found it endlessly irritating that Google would assume I wanted local results -- sometimes in a foreign language -- for wherever I happened to be.
It's an annoying paternalistic assumption: Most people in Peoria want to see these sites, which is quite different from what people in New York City want to see.
2. It's tough to be king
Another big problem: Google's too successful.
According to research firm Compete, Google holds nearly 64 percent of the search engine market. It's next biggest competitor, Microsoft's Bing, holds a mere 17 percent. Google's success makes it a target, not only for scammers looking to game the search engine but also for an army of "experts" looking to help businesses claw their way to the top of the search results.
Those looking to leverage Google for nefarious purposes are legion. There are digital hucksters known as lead generation sites that hijack local addresses and do extensive NAP work (name, address, and phone number) so that when you search for, say, a locksmith or roofer in your area, you end up with results from virtual clearing houses that aren't even located in your state.
Malware and hackers are even more insidious. These cyber crooks purchase domain names in bulk and plant tempting sites designed to creep up Google's page rankings and infect unwary searchers. The problem is so severe that Google often has to shut out sites en masse, recently blocking roughly 11 million domains from its results.
3. Search engine optimization
Still more corrosive are attempts at so-called search engine optimization or SEO. Experts in this area promise companies that they can improve page rankings by doing everything from fixing keywords to reorganizing a Web site.
SEO firms argue strenuously that they are legitimate businesses, but in general much of what they do undermines Google's original intent, namely to analyze the content of pages and Web sites, independently determine what those page are about, and deliver relevant results.
Attempts to change the content of what's on a page to make it more appealing to the search engine in effect changes that information, often making it less relevant and in effect foiling the search engine's endeavors to be accurate.
Our search results were just fine before SEO came along, thank you very much.
All of this is a result of the fact that Google is the world's most popular search engine, which makes it a target. Google fights a daily cyberbattle to keep its results relevant, but it appears to be losing the war, drowning in a sea of SEO.
Perhaps the only way to make Google better is to make it less popular.
So the next time you go to Google something, don't. Try a different search engine, such as WolframAlpha (for scientific topics), Omgili (for message boards and discussion groups), Lycos, DuckDuckGo, or Quintura. They may give you better results -- and help save Google in the process.