Google: The Spy Who Loved Me


Dr. Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist and occasional Freakonomics Blog guest blogger, posted “Why data matters” on the official Google blog, cross-posted on the Google Public Policy Blog.

Varian explains that Web search algorithms are improved by the “wisdom of the crowds” drawn from the “logs of billions of previous search queries.” That makes the general public – and government officials – nervous about privacy.

Varian tutors us in PageRank simplified and discusses link building in an ideal world – one where The New York Times and The Wall St. Journal, for example, would link to other sites generously:

“If I have six links pointing to me from sites such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the House of Representatives, that carries more weight than 20 links from my old college buddies who happen to have web pages.”

The House of Representatives? Sounds more like Charlie Wilson’s War.

SEOs, contact your local Congressional Representative for paid links – paid for with your hard-earned tax dollars.

The reality: when Dr. Varian was interviewed, The New York Times Freakonomics Blog linked to, Google green energy, Dr. Varian’s position auction paper (pdf); BBC News on Moore’s Law; Paul Seabright (Professor of Economics, University of Toulouse, France); Dr. Varian’s NY Times energy article; another Freakonomics blog post; WebMD, Revolution Health, and Paul Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering, University of Cambridge.

That’s the way major media outlets and journalists typically link: to each other; to corporate sites; to universities. It’s an elite, exclusive club. Nick Carr’s “digital elite.”

That isn’t to say Dr. Varian can’t tell a good story. He reveals how Larry and Sergey trying to license their PageRank algorithm to “some of the newly formed web search engines.”

No names named. None of the nascent search engines were interested. Since they couldn’t sell their algorithm, Brin and Page decided to start a search engine themselves. (Note to VCs: Don’t try this business model at home.)

Google has since added more than 200 additional “signals” to the algorithms that determine the relevance of websites to a user’s query. We are the signals.

All the background info leads to one conclusion: Google needs your data. Google wants you to take a leap of faith. Google must store and analyze search logs. They want us to believe, “Nobody does it better.”

Reminds me of Radiohead via Carly Simon:

“But like heaven above me, the spy who loved me/Is keeping all my secrets safe tonight. And nobody does it better/Sometimes I wish someone would/Nobody does it quite the way you do/Why’d you have to be so good.”

Dr. Varian suggests readers “Watch our videos to see exactly what data we store in our logs.”

Not everyone has time – or the inclination – to watch Google videos on YouTube.

What worries me: Google doesn’t understand us any better than we understand the mathematical formulas of search engine algorithms.

Search Engine WarGames won’t be fought between humans and machines.

Nick Carr put it best: “The erosion of the middle class may well accelerate, as the divide widens between a relatively small group of extraordinarily wealthy people – the digital elite – and a very large set of people who face eroding fortunes and a persistent struggle to make ends meet. In the YouTube economy, everyone is free to play, but only a few reap the rewards.”

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