The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently undertook a massive task (for the fourth time): predicting the future of the internet. They surveyed hundreds of technology experts, who not unsurprisingly, had varied opinions about what the future might hold. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that any of these perspectives is the exact future of the internet, since too much is unknowable. And while some majority opinions surfaced, every topic had experts with opposing viewpoints. It’s easy to both support and negate just about any of the assertions in the report.
But what I find most fascinating and useful about the report is what it says about we view and use the internet now. In particular, the use of search engines such as Google received prominent focus in the report. How can we use this report to better understand our online audiences? See the report for full details of the questions and those surveyed. From a search perspective, what I found most interesting about the responses was that:
- Collectively, we tend to assume the information in search results is accurate
- Google is a habit that we not only aren’t likely to break anytime soon, but instead are likely to grow more dependent on
- Our reliance on search-based navigation has leveled the playing field and remains a great way for anyone to reach an audience
On Google and the use of search engines
The survey asked about Nicholas Carr’s assertion that Google makes us stupid. 76% of those asked disagree and think that the internet is enhancing our intelligence. The more information we have access to, the smarter we are. Of course, this view begs the question: doesn’t the validity of this view depend on the quality of the information we have access to? It seems to me in that sense those surveyed reflect our collective assumption that if it’s ranks well on Google, it must be true.
Some studies have shown that searchers put their trust in what results rank highly, although that may be on the decline. The way the experts answered this question, however, implies that overall, we as searchers equate high Google rankings with accuracy. David Ellis, of York University in Toronto sees this tendency in his classroom: “unless pushed in the right direction, students will opt for the top 10 or 15 hits as their research strategy.” Interestingly, other respondents bring up the issue of accurate results not from the perspective that Google and other search engines don’t necessarily rank based on truthfulness, but that searchers might not be searching correctly.
Peter Griffiths, former Head of Information at the Home Office within the Office of the Chief Information Officer, United Kingdom, notes “the potential for stupidity comes where we rely on Google (or Yahoo, or Bing, or any engine) to provide relevant information in response to poorly constructed queries, frequently one-word queries, and then base decisions or conclusions on those returned items.” This sentiment is echoed by Robert Lunn, consultant at FocalPoint Analytics: “there is a big difference with what a world class artist can do with a paint brush as opposed to a monkey. In other words, the value of Google will depend on what the user brings to the game. The value of data is highly dependent on the quality of the question being asked.”
I find it amazing that so much of the questioning of the value of the information that search engines returned is based on how well we search and not in the search engine’s ability to return truthful results (as opposed to popular or well-optimized ones). Some of those answering did point this out. For instance, Gene Spafford, Purdue University CERIAS, Association for Computing Machinery U.S. Public Policy Council, pointed out:
“Access to more information isn’t enough — the information needs to be correct, timely, and presented in a manner that enables the reader to learn from it. The current network is full of inaccurate, misleading, and biased information that often crowds out the valid information. People have not learned that ‘popular’ or ‘available’ information is not necessarily valid.”
Combine the sense that generally, searchers seem to assume high ranking results are truthful ones with the data showing that searchers trust organic results more than paid ones and a clear case emerges for an investment in organic search for overall brand credibility.
Another telling aspect of both this question and the way in which the experts answered is that in most cases, respondents used “Google” in place of “search engines” or in many cases “the internet”. Google is a habit that most of us don’t plan on breaking any time soon. In fact, the experts surveyed felt we would continue to become more dependent on Google.
On reading and search-based navigation
The report spends a lot of time on the decline of reading and “literary intelligence”. Are we really reading less? And if we are specifically reading fewer books, is that because of the internet or because of video games and TV? According to Patrick Tucker, Senior Editor at The Futurist magazine, “this type of content generation [that is, blogging, commenting, and the like], this method of ‘writing,’ is not only sub-literate, it may actually undermine the literary impulse…. Hours spent texting and emailing, according to this view, do not translate into improved writing or reading skills.”
Another view, however, is that search-based navigation to content (vs. traditional navigation that begins with a reader picking up a printed newspaper or book) provides a level playing field for skilled writers who may not otherwise have found an audience. Fred Stutzman, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, for instance, noted, “I firmly believe that more people than ever before will be afforded the opportunity to write and create, to find audiences, and engage in content-enhancing feedback loops that will enhance communication.”
On the “next” Google
Susan Crawford, former member of President Obama’s National Economic Council, now on the law faculty at the University of Michigan is “optimistic that Google will get smarter by 2020 or will be replaced by a utility that is far better than Google.” Others surveyed described new ways of searching (perhaps without realizing that’s what they were doing). Rich Osborne, Web Innovation Officer, University of Exeter, for instance, predicted that “it will become commonplace to be able to overlay reviews of a product simply by pointing a screen at it, or check the weather forecast by pointing your phone at the sky.” (And you can do some of that now with products like Google Goggles and Shaazam.)
The report discusses many other issues around the future of the internet, particularly anonymity and privacy. But underlying all of the discussions was the premise that Google is our primary gateway to the content on the internet. Obvious, maybe. But it mostly went unsaid. And that no one needed to say it tells me that the future of the internet, at least for a little while longer, centers on understanding how to be visible in google search results.