The conventional wisdom these days is that Google is becoming less useful, because people are manipulating its rankings. The storyline goes like this: Once upon a time, back in the Golden Age, nobody knew about Google, so its rankings reflected Truth. But now that Google is famous and web authors think about the Google-implications of the links they create, Google is subject to constant manipulation and its rankings are tainted.
It’s a compelling story, but I think it’s wrong, because it ignores the most important fact about how Google works: Google is a voting scheme. Google is not a mysterious Oracle of Truth but a numerical scheme for aggregating the preferences expressed by web authors. It’s a form of democracy – call it Googlocracy. Web authors vote by creating hyperlinks, and Google counts the votes. If we want to understand Google we need to see democracy as Google’s very nature, and not as an aberration.
Consider the practice of “Google-bombing” in which web authors create links designed to associate two phrases in Google’s output, for instance to link a derogatory phrase to the name of a politician they dislike. Some may call this an unfair manipulation, designed to trick Google into getting a biased result. I call it Googlocracy in action. The web authors have a certain number of Google-votes, and they are casting those votes as they think best. Who are we to complain? They may be foolish to spend their votes that way, but they are entitled to do so. And the fact that many people with frequently-referenced sites choose to cast their Google-votes in a particular way is useful information in itself.
Googlocracy has been a spectacular success, as anyone who used pre-Google search engines can attest. It has succeeded precisely because it has faithfully gathered and aggregated the votes of web authors. If those authors cast their votes for the things they think are important, so much the better.
Like democracy, Googlocracy won’t always get the very best answer. Perfection is far too much to ask. Realistically, all we can hope for is that Googlocracy gets a pretty good answer, almost always. By that standard, it succeeds. Googlocracy is the worst form of page ranking, except for all of the others that have been tried.