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How Does Information Get To Us?

With more than 1,200 petabytes currently being stored between the four biggest tech supergiants currently dominating the industry, the internet is one of the largest human creations to date in terms of sheer volume. This is to say nothing about the smaller companies middling down here with the rest of us; with so much information out there, it’s easy to compare the world wide web to a flowing stream, constantly in flux, evolving, changing. It’s impossible to step in at the same place twice. How, then, does information on the internet get to us? Is it really as simple as typing a question into Google and getting an answer?

In the early days of the internet, things were simple; search results were determined by what we typed into Google, Yahoo, AOL, or Ask Jeeves. To drive more traffic to their own sites, webmasters would “engage” in the game of trying to rank higher than the competition, making their brand, company, or personal page more likely to be visited. As time went on, the game became more nuanced; search engines would instate measures to counteract the effort and to weed out fraudulent and “spammy” sites. This, in turn, gave the legitimate an opportunity to get creative and try new strategies to further their goals. The combination of the changing rules governing how pages rank and the ingenuity of those trying to exploit the system made for an interplay of push and pull that has given us the internet as we know it today.  Now, the all-seeing eye seems to know what we want before we do ourselves.

Algorithms: A Mathematical Approach to Our Most Frivolous Desires

Search engines are the gateway to everything that the internet has to offer from the perspective of most normal people using it; you simply pull up Google in your browser and ask it to bring you what you are looking for. How does searching work in a technical sense, though?

Algorithms, the steps taken by the search engine to arrive at a search result, are used to resolve our many queries. Before search engines became what they are today, only the word or phrase as it was entered by the user was taken into account. As time went on, it was understood that when people get what they want out of an internet search quickly, they tend to come back for more later on – thus, the genesis of everything going on behind the curtain ensuring that our Amazon carts stay full.

Instead of letting the person searching for information or goods and services tell the machine what they want, techs have taken the matter out of the consumer’s hands. Using metrics generated from millions of points of data, companies like Google and Facebook are able to take what we say we want and convert that information into what we’re really looking for. You search for dating sites – suddenly, you’re seeing ads for skincare and new clothes everywhere else. You seek a new picnic table for your mother – would you also like an umbrella, outdoor pillows, and a tiki lamp to go with that? In this way, companies reinforce customer loyalty while maximizing conversion and revenue.

How Do You Rank?

“Page rank”, a term coined in the nineties and an homage to Google co-founder Larry Page, refers to how high up on the list a site will find itself whenever a user makes a Google search relevant to what the website has to offer. All search engines including Google will use a number of different data inputs to guarantee that what you want to find is right in front of you as soon as you start typing. The number of visits to your site, the site’s historical popularity, and the number of external sites linking to your own will all help you launch yourself into the proverbial spotlight when the big moment comes.

By combining these factors with peripheral information on the searcher’s preferences in particular, Google and other search engines are able to get you where you want to go faster and more effectively than ever; they’ve used this strategy to  become one of the biggest names in the game and the one most of us will turn to whenever we’re searching for pretty much anything online.

SEO – Search Engine Optimization

With so much available to peruse on the internet, how can millions of lines of code bring you what you’re looking for? We are currently in the golden age of something called Search Engine Optimization – SEO, for short. SEO is defined as “the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results”, but what exactly does this mean? It’s not simply about sending a high volume of visitors to the most popular sites generically; in fact, quite the opposite. Companies like Google and Bing want to personalize the online experience as much as possible, providing you with everything you want and need without distracting you with things you may not be interested in. The goal, at the end of the day, is to convert, to match potential transactors with customers actually willing to put money down on the table for what they have to offer – you can lead a million visitors to your site, but if only four of those million make it to the checkout basket, your resources could be better directed elsewhere, perhaps toward a different demographic.

How do search engines use SEO to their advantage? Using what is called a crawler, search engines index the Internet as your search is being carried out – that is, they “read” the contents of your site and organize the data it contains, converting it into a package of information more effectively plucked from the chaos of cyberspace amid the rest of what it’s competing against. The result gets fed through the search engine’s criteria for a top-ranking page from the perspective of the client being served, where, according to the algorithm, the results are listed back to you in the order most likely to suit their own individual preferences.

Google and Bing do not author websites other than their own and do not participate in the optimization of the sites being indexed; instead, they merely provide an impartial playing field where the fittest rank high and those unable to keep up get trampled underfoot. With that being said, some companies do offer classes that, for a price, will provide more than a few hints as to the best way to keep your site above the fold. As of now, they do not provide much insight aside from this whenever the system is modified in some way. Trial and error become the digital wayfarer’s main tools to reclaim greatness when new rules are introduced without warning.

How Does One Stay Safe Online?

All you have to do to understand how serious a matter cybersecurity has become is turn on the television – with sites from Equifax to Ashley Madison falling victim to black-hat hackers, the security of millions of users’ sensitive data has the potential to become compromised. The stuff of prime-time periodicals suddenly becomes real enough to lead to defaulted mortgages and the dissolution of marriages and families.

Since 2000, the devices that we are using to search with have changed drastically. The basic relationship between searching and algorithms have endured for the most part, but the devices these operations take place on have become more mobile and potentially less secure.  Using logic and good practices while browsing the web are vital skills; corporate firewalls or at-home built-in firewalls and anti-virus programs will only be sufficient up to a certain point. The problem of lax security has only become compounded by the drastic increase in cell phone usage in recent years. Using an unsecured WiFi network, finding yourself the victim of a phishing attack, and inadvertently downloading malware onto your device are all examples of unfortunate fates that can befall one who is not wary. Ask your friends if they take the proper precautions with their iPhones and Androids. Probably not, and, if so, the effort will generally be minimal at best.

Mobile usage, app usage, searching, spending, advertising, and marketing have grown by double digits in recent years; the advent of social media has also influenced this trend. Over half of all of the internet activity that took place in 2018 transpired via mobile device.

Enter at Your Own Risk

As interesting and fun as social media is, the risks that come along with the convenience and thrill of having the entirety of mankind’s knowledge at one’s fingertips at all times are often overlooked, sometimes with dire consequences. Our government and other foreign governments have not ignored this reality – far from it, in fact. There are entire government agencies dedicated to actively monitoring social media, some using their own brand of search analytics.

How these search results are used can vary greatly. Recently, Google and Facebook have been in the news for allegedly misleading their users through search results that may have been tampered with. Russia’s supposed involvement with the last presidential election is one example of how such transgressions can have very real direct outcomes.

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

In 2017, Google tweaked its algorithm to change the way it disseminates information to its userbase and some conservative outlets have accused them of trying to turn the tides in anartificially liberal direction. Both Google and Facebook are now more aware of the issue at hand than ever; since the public is now quite aware of the discriminating hand “Big Brother” is able to dip into the information most readily available to them, they have accordingly begun to monitor online events even more closely, a fact that those making a living off of their activity cannot afford to ignore. Google’s Vice President of engineering, Ben Gomes, mentioned that the team “plan[s] to use this feedback to help improve [their] algorithms,” leading, one would hope, to a safer and more useful end-product for everybody overall.

Security and searching have become big business globally in the past couple of decades, and the algorithms that propel this movement forward will only become more and more sophisticated over time. Security should be any technically-savvy user’s top priority when browsing online. Protecting the client’s safety and the information they entrust to the person or machine at the other end of the line is imperative for a sustainable technological future that benefits all parties involved.

Professor Robert Haluska, MSIT, is a member of ALU‘s General Studies faculty. His experience includes roles as a network analyst, director of network administration, and manager of technical operations in the healthcare, banking, travel, and education industries. One of his favorite quotes on education:“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming.” 

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