Let My People Google

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Imagine for a moment that you got the following e-mail:

"Gallop has just released a poll showing that 10% of Americans have anti-Semitic feelings. This is horrible news, but if we can get 50,000 signatures on a petition, I bet Gallop will revise the number down to 5%. Please sign my web petition!"

Most people would recognize pretty quickly that the creator of the petition was well-intentioned but misinformed, and that no number of signatures was going to change the results of Gallop's poll.

Of course, polling has been around for decades, and most people understand how it works. Google, by contrast, is a pretty new phenomenon, and it's a bit mysterious to many people. That's allowed the following e-mail to make its way around the internet:

When performing a search for the word "Jew" on google.. the first resultis a site that has been notorious for being anti-semitic.. the site is called jew#watch.#com... Google is the # 1 search site and the fact that The first search result would yield an anti-semetic site is all too common in a growing era of increased Anti Semitism... In order for google to remove this They would need a petition of over 50,000 requests.... I have setup a polling site , please scroll down to the bottom to leave your 'signature' ... Thanks.. please click on http://www.#remove#jew#watch.com/ ....Please forward this to people

[Note: I've included the typos and misspellings of the original e-mail. But, for reasons that I'll explain in a moment, I've deliberately added a couple of "#"s to the website names. If you want to see the websites, just remove the "#" signs from the addresses.]

If you have much experience with the Web, you'll probably see right away the variety of ways in which this well-meaning e-mail is deeply misguided. But for the many people who aren't as well-versed in the arcane ways of the Net, I thought I'd explain what's going on.

For one thing, any time an e-mail tells you to forward it to people, it's a warning sign that you should NOT forward it to people. I've been using the Net for a decade, and in that time, I don't think I've ever seen an accurate, well-thought-out e-mail that includes a plea to be forwarded. I'm not sure why that is; maybe it's simply that accurate and well-though-out e-mails get forwarded by their own merits, without needing any explicit requests.

In this particular case, the most important thing to understand is that Google's ranking is all done by computer. When you do a search on Google, they automatically pull up whatever web pages their computer formula thinks are most relevant to your search. There are no humans involved in the decision-making progress, which means that no matter how many signatures you collect, you're not going to change the search results.

As a Google spokesman has pointed out, most people use the word "Jewish" more than the word "Jew." For example, picking a Jewish website at random, I looked at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth homepage--it mentions "Jewish music," but it doesn't have the word "Jew" or "Jews." The homepage for my parents' synagogue talks about "Judaism" and "Jewish resources," but it doesn't have the word "Jew." Or check out the Jewish Theological Seminary, or The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism--they have lots to say about "Judaism" and "Jewish" things, but nothing to say about "Jews." For some linguistic or historical reason, the only people who put up websites talking about "Jews" or "the Jews" are anti-Semites.

So, when you do a google search for "Jew," the first result is the hateful anti-semitic website "Jewwatch.com". But if you do a google search for "Jewish," the first result is a harmless site called "Jewish.com" which sells kosher food, Seder plates, and so on. Google isn't making any political statement with these results--they're just reflecting the way people use the language.

Google is a bit vague about how their search results are generated, since too much information enables people to deliberately manipulate the rankings. But they do acknowledge that, in determining where to rank a given site, they look at how many other websites reference it. For example, if you do a search on "Bill Gates," Google's computers will notice that most web pages that talk about Bill Gates reference Microsoft.com, and so the first few search results will be from Microsoft's official pages. This has led to the emergence of something called Google bombing. The idea is that you get a large number of people to put up webpages linking a certain phrase to a certain website, thereby making that website the number one result for a certain phrase. To get an idea of how this works, go to Google and type miserable failure, and then hit "I'm feeling lucky."

You can now understand why I'm writing "www.jew#watch.#com". If I spelled the website name correctly, I might actually be helping it to maintain its high rank in Google. (Or I might not -- as alert reader Justin Mason has pointed out, Google probably ignores web addresess that are just typed out (like this: http://www.yankeefog.com); they probably only count web addresses that actually represent real links that you can click on (like this: http://www.yankeefog.com). But like I said, Google is vague about exactly how it ranks results, and I'd rather be safe than sorry.)

The people who put up the http://www.remove#jew#watch.com/ site aren't as cautious as I am, though. They repeat the name of the anti-semitic website over and over again. Every time they do so, they might be helping it to maintain its high Google rank. And every time somebody links to http://www.remove#jew#watch.com/, they make Google's search engine think it's a more reliable site... which makes Google raise its estimation of every site it links to... which brings www.jew#watch.#com even higher in Google's rankings! That's why I'm using extraneous "#" characters every time I write http://www.remove#jew#watch.com/

Fortunately, there is a practical way to fix Google's results for the word "Jew," suggested by the amusingly-named Jewschool. If enough websites link the word Jew to a particular website, that site will eventually become number one in Google rankings. He suggests using the Wikipedia entry for Jew, although I think Jews could do just as well by linking to pages for the Jew who made the greatest contributions to 20th century thought. However Jews (and gentiles) choose to respond, I can tell you one thing: a petition isn't the way to go.



Justin Mason said:

Good article -- especially correct on spotting the difference in usage between "Jewish" and "Jew". However, there's a bit of an inaccuracy. AFAIK, Google doesn't actually do anything with "bare" URLs -- ones that are not surrounded by "a href" tags; it'll only increase PageRank for _real_ links.

Avenash said:

In case you haven't seen this already, here's another theory on how Google ranks their responses... http://www.google.com/technology/pigeonrank.html

Jacob said:

Avenash, thanks for the link. I'll have to start adding more birdseed to my pages if I want to increase my pagerank.

Adam said:

Jacob- there was interesting commentary on this yesterday in the Wall Street Journal:

In Search of Anti-Semitism--II
Here's more on the kerfuffle over Google's anti-Semitic links, which we noted yesterday. The search-engine company has posted an explanation of why searches for the word Jew turn up the virulently anti-Semitic site JewWatch.com as either the first or second result:

A site's ranking in Google's search results is automatically determined by computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query. Sometimes subtleties of language cause anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted. A search for "Jew" brings up one such unexpected result.

Again, we were initially inclined to accept Google's explanation, but then we noted the New York Times' report that at the request of officials from Chester, England, Google had removed a page called "Chester's guide to molesting young girls" from its search results. Several readers faulted us for not noting part of Google's explanation for that change: that Google had "removed sites from its rankings that promote pedophilia, which is illegal."

This explanation, however, looks to us rather disingenuous. For one thing, although sexual relations with children obviously are illegal, "promoting pedophilia" probably is not. It's also not clear that the offending page--actually titled "Chester's guide to picking up little girls"--really was promoting pedophilia. According to "Chester's Guide to Molesting Google," which now is the first hit on a Google search for "Chester Guide," it was a satire. Having looked at the page, we tend to agree--though the satire is so unspeakably vile, we refuse to link to it.

It turns out, further, that Google has not removed the "Chester's guide" from its search engine altogether; it comes up at the top of a search for the phrase "picking up little girls." What's more, a search for "Nambla" turns up as the third hit the home page of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, an outfit that unquestionably does promote pedophilia.

Meanwhile, a search for "Jew" on the German version of Google does not turn up JewWatch.com, though RemoveJewWatch.com is near the top. And a search of German Google for "Jewwatch.com" turns up the message: "Zur URL jewwatch.com wurden keine Informationen gefunden" ("no information was found about the URL jewwatch.com").

Presumably this is in compliance with Germany's anti-hate-speech laws, which do not have a counterpart in America. The question remains, though: If Google is willing to modify its search results in order to placate municipal officials from Britain, why does it refuse to do the same when the issue is anti-Semitism?

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This page contains a single entry by Jacob published on April 13, 2004 11:47 AM.

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