The wild, wild Web

Getting to No. 1 on the Internet is a game rife with sleight of hand. But smart new tools might just change the rules.

December 24, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

IF you go searching for God on Google, here's the first thing you're likely to find: a video essay titled "The Interview With God," which serves up a breezy Q&A with the Author of Creation punctuated by New Age-y piano riffs. (Spanish speakers making the digital pilgrimage will get, as their No. 1 search result, an invitation to a gig by a Hawthorne band called "Dios.")

Why "The Interview With God" and not the Book of Job or the Bhagavad-Gita? Because Google's busy little algorithmic brain tends to give priority to websites that link to the most other sites with similar content, and satisfy other mystic criteria known only to Google's inner circle of geeky utopians.

It may well be that "The Interview With God" reached its lofty perch because it's profound, or at least profoundly popular. But at this point in the Web's evolution, it's no stretch to guess that, the site's merits aside, someone connected with it probably knew how to, ah, finesse the Web's search-engine mechanisms.

For one naive, shining moment in the '90s, the assumption was that on the Web, popularity would be democratic, earned one enthusiastic click at a time. Pure. Simple. Untainted by Billboard, Hollywood, Nielsen or other mainstream media usual suspects. But that was before clicks meant cash, and before a flood of tools and communities brought millions of new, mainly nonprofessional content providers online, jostling to get their videos watched, audio clips downloaded and blogs and Web pages linked to bigger, more popular blogs and websites.

This intensifying contest has stoked the imperative to be "most viewed," "most e-mailed," "most played." And that, in turn, has led to a gamut of strategies for one-upping the competition.

Today, the name of the game is gaming the system. And there are so many ways to do it that, whether it's your son's alleged number of MySpace "friends" or a confab with the Almighty, if the ranking is inordinately high, a certain amount of caveat emptor is probably called for.

Over at YouTube there were accusations this year that certain videos were pushed up most-viewed lists by viewers using fake account names. Spammers keep finding ingenious ways to clutter up our e-mail in-boxes by using code words that do end runs around filters. One site launched pop-up windows, then counted them as hits.

Then there's "Google bombing" or "Googlewash," in which individuals or groups (say, members of a political party) attempt to boost their own Web page rankings, or else discredit their enemies by linking and cross-linking them to negative sites (which is why, for the last two years, a search for "miserable failure" has turned up a bio of George W. Bush). Some Wikipedia entries are periodically sabotaged -- that is, rewritten -- by so-called "trolls" with ideological axes to grind.

A cottage industry has sprouted up around "search engine optimization," more commonly known as boosting Google rankings. The trick: seeding a website with key terms that will show up in text hyperlinks, regardless of the site's actual importance or relevance. And there's always the fallback of enlisting actual humans to help click you up the list.

All this just compounds the endless, everyday flow of disinformation, evasion and falsehood abetted by one of the Internet's defining features: users' ability to disguise their identities. Thus, would-be Hollywood ingenues impersonating real-life teenagers (see: Lonelygirl15 and her ersatz video diary), and any number of creeps or bored kids posing as Brangelina look-alikes on Internet dating services.

Blame ourselves

BUT if the Web has failed to live up to some of the Arcadian hopes that launched it, perhaps that has more to do with our inflated expectations than the Web itself, says Bruce Bimber, a professor in political science and communication at UC Santa Barbara.

"So, big surprise, human nature reveals itself to be pretty much the same, even though the technologies change," says Bimber. "People behave with sort of the same mixture of crass motives and integrity online as they do elsewhere."

As Bimber, the author of books about technology and politics, points out, "One of the things that's so compelling about the Web is you find all kinds of informational strategies there." For better and worse, the Web commands our attention because it solicits our participation, even if not all its "informational strategies" fall within neat ethical lines -- which is equally true of the Web's mass communication ancestors: newspapers, television and radio.

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