The Blog of Brian Ballard Quass

Open letter to digital guru Walter Isaacson about the shortcomings of the Google search engine

Dear Walter Isaacson

Dear Mr. Isaacson,

I saw your recent interview and discussion with John Hollar at the Computer History Museum. Although I found it both enjoyable and informative, I hope you will allow me to respectfully share my dissenting point of view on one particular item of discussion, namely your implication that Google's algorithms (and the resulting search engine rankings) present a valuable (and, as it were, objective) way of bringing quality content to the fore. I do not believe that this is true, for even if we assume perfect good will on Google's part when it comes to the way that it ranks "organic" search results (a generous conclusion, imho, given the inherent opaqueness of algorithms, especially when written by a billion-dollar for-profit corporation that has a financial interest in who comes out ahead) there are still serious questions about this "popularity criteria" that Google is said to be employing (based on backlinks, etc.)

All algorithms, of course, are created with basic assumptions in mind, and Google's assumption here is that the cream will rise to the top. I submit that this is false when it comes to many of the best and most original ideas of humankind, and that the general public (Google's supposed supreme arbiters) are not going to rescue such diamonds from the rough -- without the prompting of some sort of publicity -- meaning that an author without "connections" and/or P.R. savvy is often destined for online obscurity. Google never brings such singular material to the fore: instead, it relies on the crowd to "sign off" on that material first. This one precondition ensures a mundane, predictable, practical list of search results (many of them near duplications of info from other predictable and practical sites, by the way) but it prevents the search results from giving an eye-opening look at many different ways of viewing a given subject (a vista of intriguing novelty that used to be open to all "searchers" during the early days of WebCrawler and Alta Vista).

But rather than discussing this issue in the abstract, let me mention a few specific cases from my own experience. As both a writer and musician, I have been creating all sorts of "unusual" online content for almost two decades now -- for which I used to receive regular, enjoyable and helpful feedback (and even some money!) in the early days of the Web, at which time many search engines made a point of highlighting anything that appeared to be both new and unusual.

Then, after Google both monopolized search and "went commercial", the words "new" and "unusual" suddenly became pejorative terms that guaranteed low rankings. Google did not want new and unusual: they wanted tried and true. So folks with connections (the stodgier the better, so backlinks from .edu beat backlinks from .com) began to thrive, while the content of non-credentialed folks like myself (who had little more to offer than a unique way of seeing the world) began to be buried under pages and pages of semi-repetitive but "useful" information -- often pages that had been Wikified into plenty of simplified charts and tables so that antsy data scavengers could easily "pick over them" (and then leave without so much as posting a 'thank you' note).

I am a musician with three-plus decades' worth of keyboard experience. Three months ago (just in time for Christmas 2015) I uploaded a new fully orchestrated version of "Joy to the World" to Google's YouTube.

AS OF JANUARY 29, 2015 IT HAS RECEIVED ZERO VIEWS. ZERO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Is that really reasonable, Mr. Isaacson? Is that how search rankings should work -- completely bury something new like that?

(here's the link if you care to watch it -- but my point is not that it's "brilliant" -- but that it surely deserves at least SOME initial audience)

Zero hits? Surely someone out there would be interested in seeing EVERY new half-serious recording of a Christmas song. If they decide it's crap, let them "block me" by all means -- but first let them know that I exist. Does it really make sense to, as it were, shield everyone from my music until it first becomes popular, as it were, ex nihilo? That's what Google's "popularity criteria" does.

Google is apparently waiting for signs that the video is popular.... But they're not going to show the video in search results, so how will the video become popular? Apparently not until I start networking and "playing the game" -- or buying Adwords credits.

I could give you countless examples of articles that I have written over the last decade that have gone ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE on Google -- received no hits whatsoever except from "bots", malicious and otherwise. This means, of course, that the search engine rankings have been pitiful for these articles.

For instance:

Spoof: Garrison Keillor interviewing Howard Stern (This is a novel idea, no? Surely someone should at least SEE IT???)

Play: Death of a Webmaster (comedy based on Miller's classic)

Article: Deconstructing The Rapper: (funny lyrics analysis)

Telescript: Odd or Even: (parody of "Deal or No Deal" game show)

I have created entire new genres of articles -- none of whose episodic posts have attracted ANY comment:

1) Movie reviews provided in the form of presidential press conferences (by "the moviegoer of the United States of America")

2) Op-ed pieces written in the form of Church Sermons by "Father O'Really"

3) Blog posts written in the form of stand-up comedy routines

I have created an entire A-to-Zed picture-illustrated dictionary of Britishisms -- not ONE SINGLE HIT.

Again, my point here is not that I'm a "brilliant" creator who's being ignored. I wasn't brilliant in 1998, but neither was I ignored. Before Google turned "new" and "unusual" into bad words, I was even earning a little money online from my site content, several hundred a month during the heyday of the Internet's early novelty fetish.

Since Google went commercial, however, I've not simply earned nothing, but I've become invisible. Again, I may be a crap writer, but when I publish an article like "John Q was a terrorist" -- a send-up of the public's fascination with the movie "John Q" -- I expect at least a little HATE MAIL. But I get absolutely nothing. NOBODY ever sees it. And, yes, I have been dutifully following Google's instructions for over a decade now on how to "big up" my pages with meta tags, etc. I can safely say that no advice from the Google webmaster forum has ever made ANY noticeable difference in making my online work visible.

I hope that my point of view makes at least some sense to you. It would be reassuring to me to have someone with your technological savvy at least concede that I am not entirely mad to feel the way that I do.

You talk of the connection of the humanities and technology -- but if I have learned one thing over the last two decades, it's that I, as a writer and musician, should have largely ignored the Internet during that time and taken what skills I had out into the real world. For, despite early misleading results on this score, the Internet (at least under Google's officiating) is not an incubator for new ideas and approaches -- but rather a sort of aftermarket for ideas and approaches that have already received some tangible stamp of approval prior to "coming to the party."


Brian Quass

Online content producer since 1997


Hello again, Viktor. I hope all is well.

I haven't pestered you in months, so I thought I'd use that forbearance as a pretext to share an e-mail with you. To be precise, it's the copy of a Facebook message that I sent yesterday morning to Walter Isaacson. In it, I take passionate (but I hope respectful) exception to

the digital media guru's belief that Google's search algorithms provide an objective, fair, useful, and even admirably creative way of ranking search engine results.

Best wishes,

Brian B Quass

Basye, Virginia, USA

PS While I'm slamming Google, I might as well take this postscript potshot:

Why does Google (and its many geek boosters) believe that it's fair (or at least non-problematic) for the search giant to prominently post Google+ ratings and reviews alongside the names of professionals (doctors, dentists, psychologist, psychiatrists, etc.) often based on a ridiculously small sample group of 2 to 12 totally non-credentialed "reviewers"? Does Google, for all its number-crunching savvy, know nothing at all about relevancy, context, and scientific polling procedures? One wonders how many careers they've up-ended (or misleadingly advanced) with this blatantly simplistic approach.

If I'm looking for a local psychiatrist and and I see (on page 1 of the relevant search results) that they have been reviewed twice -- once very unfavorably -- I will have second thoughts about making an appointment -- never mind the fact that the one unfavorable review may have been posted by Hannibal himself.

This postscript is not really off-topic either, in my view, because it's another instance where Google boosters are so agreeably stupefied by Google's efficiency that they are blind to the glaring deficiencies of the assumptions upon which this efficiency is operating.


For Further Study

1) Walter Isaacson (bless his heart) has not yet seen his way clear to acknowledge Brian's heartfelt broadside (see above), let alone to take up the proffered gauntlet of discussion. Write a 500-word essay that logically accounts for this oversight, being sure to dilate in full on the unbounded hubris of the high-and-mighty when it comes to disingenuously ignoring the very existence of their non-credentialed critics, as if one had to have a flipping license these days (or an op-ed column on the Huntington Flippin' Post) merely to disagree with his highness. (I'm just sayin': Walter and I both put our pants on one leg at a time.)

2) Would it have killed Walter Isaacson to at least tell Brian (rank nobody that he apparently is) that he (the apparently high and mighty Walter) actually received Brian's Facebook message? (No, right? Obviously not! I'm just sayin'!) Explain.

3) Granting the perhaps somewhat fraught proposition that Brian is out of his mind (some, indeed, characterize question 2 above as "a hateful lashing out" on the part of an "obviously troubled soul, dogged by self-doubt and deep questions of personal identity"), what's a good remedy? Should Brian consider moving to, say, Colorado or Washington state, therein to start toking modest medicinal amounts of marijuana on a daily basis to moderate what we might refer to here as his counterproductive passion in this regard? Though we might pooh-pooh the methodology (are drugs not evil unless officially prescribed by the medical establishment?), the outcome of this approach(the transformation of Brian into Mr. Cool with sudden heaps of matter-of-fact tolerance for human foibles) would probably be welcomed by the Walter Isaacsons of the world, though I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the Walter Isaacsons of the world to own up to that fact even by e-mail (let alone a phone call), high and mighty as they apparently are. (There I go again. Sorry, Walter, but you done plucked my last nerve with your total failure to respond like that. Hey, wait a minute. Didn't Oregon recently legalize marijuana, too? Maybe I'll move there.)

google, walter isaacson

People who enjoyed this post went on to experience life-changing epiphanies upon listening to Brian's one-man-band electronic keyboard music written and performed under the nom-de-piano of Quasar Nibs -- which, check it out below!

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