When information becomes “information”

Are search engines benign? Lee Gomes, of the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t think so. He recently dove into the booming online business of ginning up “original content,” and he reports on his experience in his column today.

“Understanding what’s happening,” he writes, “requires a lesson in modern Web economics”:

If there is a topic in the news, people will be searching on it. If you can get those searchers to land on a seemingly authoritative page you’ve set up, you can make money from their arrival. Via ads, for instance. Then, to get your site ranked high in search engines, it’s best to have “original content” about whatever the subject of your site happens to be. The content needs to include all the keywords that people might search for. But it can’t be just an outright copy of what’s on some other site; you get penalized for that by search engines.

Writers are being solicited to churn out such content at dirt cheap rates. Gomes, for instance, signed up on the web to write fifty 500-word articles for $100 (that’s total, not per piece). Most of the writing, apparently, gets done in India and Eastern Europe, and much of it consists of mashing up, and distorting, work plagiarized from other, legitimate sites. Depending on the types of products or ads they’re selling, the site operators instruct the writers to slant the stories to their needs. Medical topics are particular favorites – and particularly subject to fakery and twisting.

“My beef,” Gomes concludes, “is with the search engines and the economics of the modern Web”:

Google, for example, says its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The way that’s written, one thinks perhaps of a satellite orbiting high above the earth, capturing all its information but interfering with nothing. In fact, search engines are more like a TV camera crew let loose in the middle of a crowd of rowdy fans after a game. Seeing the camera, everyone acts boorishly and jostles to get in front. The act of observing something changes it. Which is what search engines are causing to happen to much of the world’s “information.” Legitimate information … risks being crowded out by junky, spammy imitations. Nothing very useful about that.”

Search engines didn’t invent charlatanism. They’re just turning it into a modern global industry, complete with cheap offshore labor.

10 thoughts on “When information becomes “information”

  1. Gilbert Pilz

    Would this problem still exist if the most popular search engine were run as a non-profit, public service? I think it would. The equation “X seconds of human attention = rY cents” is the same regardless of how you actually get a human to look at something.

  2. Srinivasan

    “Observer not changing what is being observed” is an assumption which is a basic flaw in most studies of economics. George Soros explains it wonderfully in his book the alchemy of finance. The same applies here. Good Post!

  3. JG

    The problem is, there is no incentive for search engines to change, given their current business model. By taking this “camera in the middle of the crowd” as opposed to “satellite” view of the information landscape, search engines create an artificial scarcity. There are only a handful of top ranked spots, only a handful of paid advertisement spots. So they essentially spawn this whole industry of SEOs (both black and white hats) and hucksters and insane profits, all fighting over the top of the ranked list.

    If, however, you were to change to a satellite view, in which the user could quickly navigate his way through tens of thousands of documents at a time, rather than through tens of documents at a time, then this artificial scarcity would disappear, and so would the SEOs, and so would the insane profits.

    What do I mean by navigating through tens of thousands of documents at a time? Well, I think Vivisimo is one step in the right direction, though by far not the final answer. You can quickly get an overview of hundreds of documents at once. But the major search engines haven’t even taken that step yet.

    To do so would disrupt their business model. But to do so is what needs to happen, to help people really organize all the information in the world around them.

    Search is broken, because search’s business model is broken. I don’t care if you don’t mix organic with sponsored results. The whole artificial scarcity of your interface, and your unwillingness to improve it, is a direct disservice to the user.

  4. Applied Abstractions

    Adsense sweatshops

    Via Nick Carr refers to an article by Lee Gomes in the WSJ about search engine ginning as a response to news events. I suppose we had it coming, but shouldn’t Google and others be able to counter this with…

  5. shiv

    I call the competition for pagerank “metric madness”, and this has caused the correlation between pagerank and content to weaken.

    Google claims that there is no human intervention in the pagerank process. Therein lies the problem.

  6. Srikanth

    Quite an interesting article. I am a google fanatic, but wsj.com article made me wonder how search engines are impacting “news”. Excellent article.

  7. Arnie McKinnis

    The analogy of the “camera crew” I agree with – there is a mentality of people to be noticed and it cost lots of money to get your site optimized for a search engine. SEO has created a booming industry – and if you look at Google’s partner list, you will see Accenture featured – they have created a “business consulting area” around search.

  8. Tom

    I found some guy who was copying my posts completely and putting them on his scam website, no attribution or anything. I don’t know how you stop it, but the reeally moronic thing is that are businesses whose google adwords appear on his site, and that’s how he makes money. So does google really want to see this stop? And why would anyone approve of having their google adwords display on these sites? If anyone does click it’s simply to pass some time, they can’t possibly be interested in the host site.

  9. Shri

    Search engines didn’t invent charlatanism.

    We did.

    I like the camera example. Back in school, we even coined a term for it. We called it AGT – Attention Grabbing Tactics.

    IMHO, it is highly unethical. What is even more disturbing is the fact that for every one genuine site, there are at least twenty other sites trying to live off it. And what’s worse is, there is no apparent way to stop it.

    With a resource as vast as the Web, it is difficult to spot fakes and duplicates. It’s like trying to find your look-alike in the world. They (lookalikes) exist, but the area to scan is so large, you know its pointless, even before you begin… The Web is kinda like that.

    Then again, sometimes, the best & the most detailed of articles can fail to help laymen. If this mashing up leads to a good, informative article, well, why the heck not?

    After all, we look for knowledge and not information, right?



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