house republicans take on google, own selves in process

When the internet really doesn’t like you, there isn’t much you can do but get better. Just don’t tell that to angry aging lawmakers. They will refuse to believe you.

social media rage

For every techie, one of the most painful experiences during the holiday season is trying to explain how smartphones, computers, and the internet work to tech illiterate family who can’t do what they want with their devices and either can’t or refuse to understand why they don’t behave exactly like they expect. Now, imagine being an executive of one of the world’s largest tech companies and having to do something very similar with aging lawmakers livid that their policies are reviled by the majority of the public and the internet doesn’t hide it in favor of singing praises to their efforts to pollute the environment, gut the safety net, and rack up unsustainable debt.

Really, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai displayed the patience of a saint as he was bombarded with the GOP’s demands to know why the search engine that underpins most of his business doesn’t function like their personal PR rep. Apparently, in the minds of the graying lawmakers, there was a massive conspiracy to make sure internet users searching only saw negative headlines despite being unable to articulate how they think it would work of present any proof for this. Try as they might, they simply couldn’t, or most likely, wouldn’t understand what California Democrat Ted Lieu spelled out for them loudly and clearly.

If you want positive search results, do positive things. If you don’t want negative search results, don’t do negative things. To some of my colleagues across the aisle, if you’re getting bad press articles and bad search results, don’t blame Google or Facebook or Twitter. Consider blaming yourself.

And he’s absolutely right. Search engines simply return the internet’s opinion of you and what we’re seeing is the GOP throw a temper tantrum because after two years of back-to-back daily scandals and trying to ram through widely reviled policies and regulations, the media and the majority of the country don’t seem to think too highly of them. This isn’t the first time Republicans had a fit and summoned tech executives, demanding to know why the content they liked didn’t have the level of engagement they wanted it to have. They’ve also threatened to demand that major platforms to have their code audited and modified if they didn’t force feed their users right wing conspiracy theories.

so how do search engines actually work?

When you search for something, a search engine looks at its vast database of indexed content and using certain priorities ranks them in the order it thinks are relevant. No one knows exactly what those priorities and that’s by design. If you figured out a better way to deliver a relevant answer than your competition, you probably don’t want to publish detailed results to put them on the same playing field, as well as give spammers a guide to game the results. However, we do have some hints because search engines (well, let’s be honest, Google) want those who create useful content to know how to rise above spam and reposts.

Usually those criteria include the technical quality of the site, how often it’s updated, how current the content is to the search term, and the quality of links to and from the site. A site you keep updated frequently, linking to and receiving links back from trustworthy, well-maintained sources, as free of spammy ads and viruses as possible, and publishing current stories comes in highly recommended. Context matters as well, as does the type of content. A news article vs. a static educational page combined with a type of query reflecting current events vs. a scientific term or concept, would follow different rules for ranking the results.

This is why there are said to be more than 200 factors in all, a number Puchai brought up during the hearings. So, when a lawmaker wanted to know why a search for “idiot” brings up a picture of President Trump — surely due to a liberal conspiracy to manipulate the web according to her Republican colleagues — the answer is that a lot of people have either tagged or commented pictures of him with that label, either in the “alt” HTML property used to describe images to search engines and browsers, in the captions under images of Trump, or in the text around them.

what do you do if you want more positive search results?

To paraphrase Congressman Ted Lieu, if you want better search results, do better things. Be known for something positive or thought provoking. In the image search of the term “idiot” in question, all Google did was the computer equivalent of saying “if you want a picture of an idiot, a lot of people have been calling this picture an example of one.” All that’s happening behind the scenes is that an algorithm is just sorting through an enormous database of web pages whose raw HTML code it reads all the time and saves for later reference. In other words, we can pretty safely view these tech hearings as little more than lawmakers demanding to know why it is that people don’t like them more.

And this brings us to yet another iteration of a common theme on Weird Things. The world has dramatically changed in just a little over a generation and the people who are in charge of it are either unable or unwilling to learn how and why, or are simply too narcissistic and drunk with power to realize that trillions of lines of code, millions of machines, and a global economy driven by technology that might as well have come from an alien planet as far as they know, won’t bend to their whims. Expect more hearings and more impotent rage from baby boomer politicians as they’re slowly but surely replaced by younger, more tech savvy millennials. But at least they’ll be a goldmine of self-owns and relatable face-palming moments for younger generations.

# tech // computers / government / internet / politcians

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