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Google's Grey Goo problem

'God's brain' gets a migraine

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Letters At Google's annual Press Day, the company was keen to remind us that search still matters. The official Google commorative weblog entry for the day is titled, "Yes, we are still about search", and three of the four announcements were search-related - although one of them, an updated Zeitgeist page, is little more than a novelty.

Over the past eighteen months, Google has come to resemble a tacky PC utilities vendor, so it was particularly refreshing to hear Brin admit Google had overdone the Beta label too. Implicit in that observation is the admission that much of the non-search development is of dubious quality.

But it isn't the desktop gizmos that bother you. It's search - and if Google executives want to measure the extent of the company's fall from grace, they only need read our postbag in response to the chaos caused by the "Big Daddy" update.

The problem is, Google has created a commons that is designed to be exploited beyond its capacity. Each user of a commons has an incentive to defect from the common good, to seek individual advantage.

But in the Google commons, SEOs have an incentive to DESTROY the common good, to try to prevent anyone else from having any individual advantage. How the hell do you create a sustainable business model when everyone is intent on fucking up yours?

Many people have waxed lyrical about how Google was "God's Brain" and contained some sort of magical Gestalt of all of mankind's knowledge. But now it's like an autistic brain that can't say anything except advertising jingles.

Charles Eicher


Thank you so much for your article about Google. Google wouldn't answer anyone, wouldn't admit fault and we all thought WE did something wrong.

The Google Tsunami of 2006 is responsible for wiping out thousands of businesses. What do you think the Google Disaster Team will do to rectify the damage?

Deirdre Cavene

We'll come to Google's latest "fix the web" idea in a moment.

But the problem the web has now is that its "democratization" permits spammers to outwit Maths PhDs. The speed at which the web can be populated with junk is nicely illustrated by reader Alek:

My guess is that 5,000,000 or so pages returned for V7ndotcom Elursrebmem add to the problem - this is the latest SEO contest and there are ZERO results for that term before January 15th.

Miro Walker has this important correction

You state: "Financial analysts noted that its R&D expenditure now matches that of a wireline telco."

Your source says "Jordan Rohan of RBC Capital Markets called Google's capital spending "unfathomably high," noting that it spent the same percentage of its revenue on equipment as a wire-line phone company."

Google spending a lot on R&D makes for an innovative company. Google spending a lot on equipment makes for a lot of assets that are depreciating away into dust.

Thanks, Miro.

Now for the thorny question of whether Google and Yahoo! profit from irrelevance. Let's assume good faith and common sense - there's still a natural tension because Googlewants you to click the advertisements, rather than the SERPs results. Google makes money - pure profit - when you click on an ad, in preference when you click on search result number three. To return too much irrelevance would be commercial suicide. But a couple of extra clicks, repeated millions of times, make a big difference to those end of quarter results.

And if you think this is too cynical a view, I have a bridge to sell you. I click on the ads much more frequently than I once used to when I'm shopping for something. How about you?

It is striking to see how, in both cases, both Microsoft and Google got mugged by evil-doers, in very similar ways. Microsoft's insecure code is routinely exploited by malware authors, and Google's vaunted PageRank is tricked and exploited by spammers and fake site owners. On the Internet, we can be sure that anything that can be exploited will be.

Fred Mora

Is our children learning?

It's similar to the farcical notion that the internet is somehow beneficial to education - by that I mean pre-college education.

The techno evangelists have somehow convinced not only the public, but teachers themselves, that spending hours trying to sieve through eBay adverts and links to Amazon sales pages is somehow beneficial to kids who haven't learnt enough math to work out when a checkout gets a sales price wrong.

A challenge for you. Try to lookup any subject of educational value to children on the internet, and tell me that the first 50 pages of results are simply links to Amazon sales pages listing the very books the internet is supposedly replacing.

That's the real kicker. Valuable information is not free, nor will it ever be. Slowly but surely the little pockets of freely available material are being replaced by paid access websites and commercials for books. At least the small areas of cyberspace that aren't porn or gambling websites.

Andy Bright

PJ Brunet is a lot more optimistic.

As a publisher and a programmer, I don't fear the scrapers. I wouldn't even fear an text-spewing AI robot. Authority can't be faked. Publishers and writers need to be patient.

Readers also suggested several fixes. One involved extracting traffic data from the telcos to guage "false requests", which may help with Click Fraud but doesn't affect SERPS. Another suggested an organized "click-in" - hitting the ads non-stop for a week. Unfortunately this would exhaust the advertising funds of the majority of honest advertisers, make Google richer, and we'd back back at square one.

Grey Goo is far from a trivial problem. So what's the solution?

Unfortunately it heaps the problem back to the webmasters, who now have to generate laborious XML metadata maps for their sites.

And it has the same fatal flaw as PageRank. You can be sure the the Viagara peddlers and Texas Hold 'Em sites will soon have the most metadata of the highest quality.

So, here we are. Now what was that about"Web 2.0", again? ®

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