IN FEBRUARY THE Macquarie Dictionary committee named ‘googleganger’ as its Word of The Year for 2010.[i] ‘Googleganger was a very successful coinage, modeled on doppelganger,’ says Susan Butler[ii], the dictionary’s editor, mentioning the splicing of doppelganger with the name of the search engine that has reshaped how the internet is used, how we talk, how we look for answers, what we’ve shared about ourselves and so much else. Neither Google – having been around since 1998 and now handling over a billion search queries each day[iii] – or the word googleganger – used in a limited way for years – are new, but the latter is a reflection of the way the former has changed the way we seek and what we’re seeking. ‘There’s often that delay between the language of a small group in the community and the broader language. And the dictionary is a dictionary of mainstream Australian English,’ points out Butler. Is the Word of 2010 an indication of what we’re thinking about? Maybe, if we consider that the top words of 2008 were ‘toxic debt’ and the 2009 winner was ‘shovel ready’.
Googleganger was, believes Butler, an amusing comment on our behaviour. ‘It was revealing the way in which we were actually using the internet. This wonderful tool was provided to us all and as human beings what did we do? We instinctively looked for ourselves. It seems a very human response.’
To what extent do we use Google to look for ourselves (Macquarie also added ‘ego-surfing’ this year, which is maybe an indication) and how has it changed the way we deal with each other? When we want information, it’s easy to go straight to a search engine. Hal Varian, Google’s Chief Economist, once commented, ‘The Internet makes information available. Google makes information accessible.’[iv] Is googling another person (or ourselves) voyeuristic (or narcissistic), or is it just a matter of course, a necessary part of modern life? Are people just another query, another term to be punched into a search field to prompt a list of links?
According to a study last year by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 57 per cent of Americans looked for themselves on a search engine, and slightly less than half googled people they knew.[v] There is no similar Australian study on internet habits, but we do have a 2008 experiment, entitled Google Yourself! Measuring the performance of personalized information resources [vi], carried out by the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, and the Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology. Dr Jason Wilson was a co-author on Google Yourself, which, through a transaction log analysis over a fourteen-month period, examined 2.46 million search requests.
‘I suppose the question really comes up a lot, where people talk about the internet and online culture and this stereotype idea of narcissism,’ says Wilson, now a lecturer in Digital Communications at the University of Canberra.[vii]
The team’s results included a finding that there was a much ‘higher interest in personalized web pages’, that there was a strong correlation between the search term used and the URI selected, and, in their conclusion, their findings supported the idea that the internet was changing ‘from a web of documents and hyperlinks into a web of social relationships.’ In other words, we’re interested in looking for people, we know what we’re looking for and we’re using the web to interact with others.
WOULD IT FEEL strange to know you’ve been sought by a stranger on the web? Then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt (now Executive Chairman) was googled and some of the results of this quick search were included in a 2005 article on internet privacy by Elinor Mills of the CNET news site.[viii] The executive’s monetary worth, town of residence, hobby details and political donations were listed, and Google responded angrily, refusing interviews to CNET for a year.[ix] Clearly, being sought using his own technology didn’t sit well with Schmidt, though (maybe aware of how their reaction may have looked) Google resumed dealing normally with CNET a few months afterwards.[x]
The idea of being googled might make some people uncomfortable, as though they’re being scrutinised or exposed. It also seems difficult for some people to admit googling others. Consider the ease with which an applicant can be screened. A Microsoft/Crosstab survey of US employers found that 86 per cent of those surveyed valued and factored in an appropriate online reputation when hiring, and slightly fewer than this admitted to screening an applicant online.[xi] And what might be the attitude in this country among employers? There’s no hard data to say, but of eleven recruitment companies contacted for this article, none wanted to discuss the topic.[xii] Advantage Recruitment’s Sydney-based Finance and Operations Manager considered the request but, after contacting his marketing department, returned with a reply of, ‘Unfortunately we are not able to provide any comments.’[xiii] Advantage was then asked if their response should be taken as confirmation that recruitment companies utilise search engines but don’t like to talk about it: no reply was forthcoming.
Similarly, several real estate companies appeared reluctant to confirm whether Google served as a tool for screening rental applicants. The marketing department at Century21 Australia initially suggested that an IT staffer might have been able to help but the enquiry was kyboshed and the worker didn’t ‘want to give out any information that could potentially put him in a bad situation.’[xiv] It seems reasonable to assume that a company looking for a suitable employee or tenant would use Google to try and weed out unsuitable ones. However it seems that they don’t want to talk about it.
On a person-to-person level, Wilson believes it’s just a fact of life that people are going to google each other. ‘Well, we’re curious aren’t we? We’re curious creatures who want to know about the people we’re dealing with,’ he says. ‘Will most people google someone who they’re going out on a date with? Well, probably. We need to think about possibly not so much whether that’s good or bad, but how we can control how much information is actually out there about ourselves and is google-able and what sort of impression we leave.’
Danny Sullivan, the founder and editor of the influential Search Engine Land newsletter, sees googling another person as simply a way of finding out what you’d always have looked for but in the past have taken longer to find. ‘I don’t see anything voyeuristic or unethical about it. Why would there be?’ he asks.[xv] ‘If you wanted to know something about someone in the past, be it for personal reasons, you might ask around. For work reasons, you’d ask for references. Google kind of helps fill both roles.’
On the flip side, googling a potential employer is a simple and quick way to know what they might like as an applicant. A Time journalist once brashly noted that she would ‘Google-stalk’ an editor she hoped to work for, read the editor’s Facebook information, LinkedIn network details, see what his picks at Goodreads.com are, and browse his latest work on Amazon.[xvi] Also for applicants, it might be useful to do a spot of ego-surfing before the interview. As Search Engine Land once put it: ‘as more companies, landlords and dates use search in addition to or in lieu of background checks, it may be smart for everyone to "google" themselves periodically to make sure those pictures of that one party never made it online.’[xvii]
Preventing and managing undesirable information about oneself on the internet seems a fairly recent concern. In March this year Dr Timothy Wright, headmaster at the private school Shore, warned parents that online dirt could potentially trouble their children forever.[xviii] ‘Modern technology means that the careless word, the slanderous comment, the inappropriate photograph or the revealing of someone’s private details is on the permanent record and freely available to anyone who has access,’ said Wright. ‘Stupidities that were once forgotten now last, spread and damage in ways unknown before this decade.’
Stupidities have stayed with Harry Gupta (he would rather his nor his former employers’ real names be included -saying there’s quite enough linking his name to his indiscretions already, thank you very much), for nearly five years after they were recorded in a Daily Telegraph article posted on the newspaper’s website. His name’s top match brings up an article recording Gupta’s appearance in court for hoon behaviour, including in front of a police station. Unless it is taken down, Gupta, a thirty-year-old network engineer, will always have an article attached to his name that breathlessly lists him as a ‘serial law breaker’, ‘a nuisance’ and ‘a menace to the public’. Sometimes Gupta googles his name just to see if the article’s still there. ‘It’s something that my friends still do every now and then as a joke as well. My wife does it too; she actually did it the other day,’ he says. ‘She looked at Google Image and that’s what came up. A picture of me outside the court and the other one with the burnout picture.’
The young engineer has managed to find another job since he and his state government employer were blasted in print and online, but he’s always been a little troubled by what’s just a click away. ‘Well that was one of my main concerns when I was applying for jobs,’ recalls Gupta. ‘Going for a job, having something like that will work against you.’
Being haunted by negative search matches is examined in Delete: the Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger.[xix] Mayer-Schonberger discusses the perfect digital memory and how, ‘today, with the help of modern technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.’[xx] He considers the internet’s ability to store and recall every indiscretion troubling, and suggests an expiration date on digital information. ‘One of the sad parts of Google is if you google somebody, then you get a composite picture, like a puzzle, made out of a lot of different elements, different puzzle pieces,’ he once told an interviewer.[xxi] ‘But the person that emerges from this composite picture never was, because what you see is elements from fifteen years ago and from ten years ago and from ten days ago. And what is different – what is taken out of the picture – is the time dimension, namely that we all evolve and change over time.’ For somebody who doesn’t know Gupta and who Googles him, what is most relevant, according to the search engine, is an archived tabloid article about what a ‘menace’ he is.
For those who want to spend the time, money and effort, you can rewrite or at least re-arrange the quasi-biographical index that Google assembles for you. Consider as an example a US internet ad entrepreneur named Daniel Yomtobian, the founder of Advertise.com.[xxii] Google his name and you’ll find several sparse and apparently pointless cached websites about Yomtobian’s love of cars, his early years, his start as a web entrepreneur (detailing his ‘dissent into the online industry’ and ‘his hard work and determinism’) his fans and his beginnings as a grocery store worker. These websites serve little purpose other than to bury articles critical of Yomtobian – such as one alleging his creation of a spyware program and his hacking people’s email accounts to send out pornographic spam[xxiii] – re-ordering the story that Google tells searchers about the gentleman’s past. Yomtobian declined, through an Advertise.com spokesperson, to comment on his online reputation management.[xxiv]
Reputation management is a relative of the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry, and is an area experiencing recent growth.[xxv] Michael Benkovich is one of many plying the SEO trade, running a small business named Local Web Advertising in Surry Hills, Sydney. ‘We’ve been operating just over a year,’ says Benkovich.[xxvi] ‘We take local, service-based businesses and help them rank higher on Google for key words related to what they offer.’ His company assists small businesses by exploiting the search engine’s preference for sites that have a high number of other sites linking them, and, like other SEO enterprises, spends time creating and buying sites and linking these to their clients’ ones. ‘The algorithm is so complex,’ explains Benkovich. ‘People call it ‘The Algorithm’ but there’d be hundreds of factors. It is a secret...but the crux of Google’s algorithm is the linking. To combat all the spam and stuff they’ve added to it. But for us it’s just about the links. If you do it enough, with enough volume, you’ll get results.’
Google is disdainful of the practise of exploiting its system of ranking results, which it does through considering popularity, number of links, and relevance. ‘Google’s search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the web,’ says Henning Dorstewitz, Google’s Global Communications and Public Affairs Manager, Australia and New Zealand.[xxvii] The company considers SEO as cheating its users and increasing the amount of irrelevant material. ‘We are constantly working to improve our algorithms to ensure people find the most relevant information possible for their searches.’ Google revamped its search formula earlier this year to combat what it saw as ‘low quality’ sites distorting results. One newspaper commented that this was ‘an admission that Google, the trusted curator of the web, was being outwitted.’[xxviii]
Another trying to outwit Google is Reputation.com, a reputation management company founded by Harvard graduate Michael Fertik. Reputation.com employs over one hundred SEO experts who try and alter the story that Google tells about an individual, burying slander, regrettable comments and critical content. They have clients in over one hundred countries, including Australia, and report a 600 per cent growth in revenues last year.[xxix]
Fertik, Reputation.com’s CEO, contends that individuals are inextricably tied to online queries about them. ‘Today, every "life transaction" – hiring, dating, applying for school – is directly affected by a search engine query, by your content online,’ he said.[xxx] ‘You must make sure that people who see your "online resume" – effectively, the first page of a Google search for your name – see positive, truthful, and highly relevant information about you.’
Unsurprisingly, considering the business he runs, Fertik has strong views on how important it is to manage one’s Google matches. ‘We are routinely being reviewed and judged based on our search engine results, and if individuals and businesses aren’t proactively managing what’s out there, they are leaving search engine results out of their control. Even if there’s no information about you online, your online image is a chance to add more positive information to your resume.’
Again, Google is not pleased at people and companies ‘gaming’ them. ‘Our mission is to help people find relevant information. So, we don’t condone reputation management campaigns that attempt to hide relevant information,’ says Dorstewitz. Google will continually refine its search algorithm to try and outdo SEO techniques and low value websites. ‘While there is nothing in our guidelines that explicitly forbids reputation management, if we uncover link schemes or other violations, we reserve the right to take action in response.’
For the time being, Google offers those with a web presence a sort of index for an unauthorised biography – one with numerous contributors. ‘And it’s a new way of marking your presence in the world. It’s a way of making your presence in the world maybe more concrete,’ suggests Wilson, remembering what life was like a decade or so ago. ‘Depending on the way in which you use social media, a lot of the time a social media presence gives an even more intimate picture of your life maybe than an autobiography would...We’re certainly leaving more and more factual traces of our lives than we used to.’
Memberships in local sporting teams, political affiliations, opinions on movies and books, careless comments, comments on the walls of Facebook groups, and much else might be recorded, as might the occasional burnout. ‘I suppose it’s a way for everyone to have a biography, in a way that was never possible before,’ comments Sullivan. A set of Google search results provides a composite of its subject, with no consideration given to their personal evolution or the context of any of the entries, each on permanent and public file and only a curious click away.
‘The real message is maybe you need to be careful about what you put out there, be aware that you’re publishing – be aware that people probably will Google you,’ suggests Wilson. ‘And just kind of keep that in mind.’
[i] Barry, C (2011) http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/word-of-2010-googleganger.htm. Accessed 15 April, 2011.
[ii] Personal correspondence with Susan Butler, 20/4/2011
[iii] Ashton, J. ‘Google’s search for its future’, The Australian, p. 13, April 4, 2011
[iv] Auletta, K. (2009) Google: The End of The World As We Know It, Virgin Books
[v] Pew Research Center (2010), http://pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2010/PIP_Reputation_Management_with_topline.pdf. Accessed 28 April, 2011
[vi] Nicolai, T, Kirchhoff, L, Bruns, A, Wilson, JA, and Saunders, B (2008) ‘Google Yourself! Measuring the performance of personalized information resources’, in Proceedings Association of Internet Researchers 2008: Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Accessed April 15, 2011, from QUT Digital Repository: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/)
[vii] Personal correspondence with Jason Wilson, 28/4/2011
[viii] Mills, E. (2005) http://news.cnet.com/Google-balances-privacy,-reach/2100-1032_3-5787483.html Accessed 10 April, 2011.
[x] Auletta (2009) p. 136
[xi] Gibson, M. (2011), http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,2065597,00.html. Accessed 10 April 25, 2011.
[xii] Email correspondence with Ross and Julia Ross, Hays, Michael Page International, Peoplebank, Tuckwell, Citi, Finite, Adaps, Advantage, Launch and Adecco recruitment consultants, April 19-21, 2011.
[xiii] Personal and email correspondence with Nick Tonkin, Advantage Recruitment, April 19, 2011.
[xiv] Email correspondence with Rachel Jordan, Marketing Assistant at Century21, April 19-22, 2011.
[xv] Email correspondence with Danny Sullivan, April 22, 2011.
[xvi] Cullen, L. (2008) http://workinprogress.blogs.time.com/2008/05/29/googlestalking_your_interviewe/ Accessed April, 10, 2011.
[xvii]Fox, V. (2007), http://searchengineland.com/pew-survey-finds-most-people-dont-google-themselves-that-often-after-all-12952. Accessed April 10, 2011.
[xviii] Patty, A. ‘Facebook fear: Schooldays could be most damaging of your life’, Sydney Morning Herald, p.1, 26 March, 2011.
[xix] Mayer-Schonberger, V. (2009) Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton University Press
[xx] Mayer-Schonberger (2009), p. 2
[xxi] Interview with Mayer-Schonberger (2009) http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=114045279 . Accessed 10 April, 2011.
[xxiii] Delio (2003) http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/news/2003/02/57553. Accessed April 15, 2011.
[xxiv] Email correspondence with Simon Chernin, April 19, 2011.
[xxv] Bilton, N (2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/fashion/03reputation.html?_r=1 Accessed April 15, 2011.
[xxvi] Personal correspondence with Michael Benkovich, 19/4/2011
[xxvii] Personal correspondence with Henning Dorstewitz, 20/4/2011
[xxviii] Lohr, N. (2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/weekinreview/06lohr.html. Accessed April 15, 2011.
[xxix] Gibson (2011)
[xxx] Email Correspondence with Michael Fertik via Patty Tredway, PR Director, Reputation.com, April 28.