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Communications of the ACM


What We Owe Google, and What Google Owes ­Us

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Mark Guzdial

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial

If you were to search for "Mark Guzdial" on Google until the last week, you would have received a result that looks something like this:

I was actually promoted to Professor six years ago.  If you were to check any of the pages that Google referenced, they would all say that I was a Professor.  If you were to check Google's cached pages, they would also say that I was a Professor.  Where was the "Associate Professor" coming from?

Over the last six years, I've given a lot of invited talks.  I have a collection of talk posters that announce that I'm an Associate Professor at Georgia Tech.  Once, I pointed out to my host that I was actually a Professor.  "Are you sure?  'Associate' is what it says on Google" was the reply.  So who should know better what my title is, me or Google?  Our reliance on online information sources like Google is such that we trust it beyond other sources, which are arguably more trustworthy.

I decided to blog on this annoyance a couple weeks ago. Readers made several suggestions and explored their contacts, and finally someone from Google explained what was going on.  Google actually uses the Open Directory effort for these snippets.  The entry that includes my name is on a page that has long since gone defunct--there is no editor for that page, so no one to approve changes.  The contact at Google kindly told me what "meta" tag to insert into my homepage such that Google would ignore the Open Directory entry for me.  I've done that, and now, Google no longer insists that I'm an Associate Professor.

Given our reliance on online information sources, my experience leads me to several different concerns:

  • Did you know that Google was drawing on additional information, distinct from the pages that it indices, to annotate those pages?  I didn't.  How could I have known about that?  How do we find out where our online information sources are getting their information?  We all know that Wikipedia is crowdsourced.  Did you know that Google's annotations were, too?
  • I caved -- I made changes to my homepage so that Google would describe me correctly.  Bing has never described my title incorrectly, as far as I know.  But I know that lots of people use Google, and I care about how I'm described there, so I was willing to go to extra effort so that Google didn't describe me incorrectly.  Should I have had to do that?  Do I share the responsibility in Google telling the truth about me?  Even when I had nothing to do with Google getting it wrong in the first place?
  • I'm a professor in a College of Computing.  I have colleagues and blog readers such that I was able to get someone at Google to help me.  How do less well-connected people correct errors in Google's search page?  It's not a newspaper, where we could complain to an editor.  It's not a regulated information source, like the phone directory in the old AT&T monopoly days, where there was a legal requirement that the information source be correct.  Who's responsible for the accuracy of on-line information sources that we all rely on heavily?




The main trouble with Google is a total lack of transparency. I understand the logic of protecting the "algorithms" and "formulas" from abuse if they were open, but then from things like this we see that they are far from giving us the results that we have been led to expect. PLUS there are still "abuses" occuring but can we call them "abuse" if they're just doing what anybody might do given the chance?

I've seen tilting in results, I put in three keywords and it comes up with pages where a 3rd word was never there before, and lots of etceteras.

Google needs COMPETITION. I'm looking for a credible alternative. Not Yahoo, it intercepts me with a "Not authorized" message when I click on sites they don't politically care for.

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