Algorithms Led Me To Panda

Today’s blog is inspired by Huffington Post’s Best of TED 2011 list. The 18 TED Talks on the list are portrayed as ideas worth spreading in 2012. Talk #18 is by Kevin Slavin and is titled How Algorithms Shape Our World. Here goes – I am doing my part in spreading these ideas to the four corners of the earth and beyond, if aliens have found a way to infiltrate the internet.

I watched the video of Kevin Slavin’s talk. (It is link #2 below.) Then I was reminded about another talk involving algorithms during the TEDx Rhein Main by Mercedes Bunz. My interest was awakened. Are algorithms a force to be reckoned with? But before I could answer this question, I had to find the answer to a fundamental question. What are algorithms? I am assuming that 99% of the internet users would have done what I did next – look up the term in Wikipedia. There is a lot of information on this page. Luckily l found what I was looking for in the first paragraph, “Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing and automated reasoning.”

After watching Kevin Slavin’s talk it became clear to me how algorithms were shaping our world. But the longer I thought about this, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that algorithms were also manipulating our view of the world. I am one of those people, who proudly say that this age is not about how much information you can hold in your head but it is about knowing where to look for this information when you need it. Over the years, I have personally come to rely primarily on the internet for information; be it the latest news, the lowest price for a particular product to even shopping for groceries. But how much of these decisions were manipulated by algorithms and the ranking of results for a query. For instance, I am an Amazon junkie. I could spend hours looking at products I do not really need. Anyway I have always wondered what the logic behind the “Relevance” sort criteria is, which is always the default value. Was it relevant to Amazon? Products which provide high sales margins for Amazon?

I am getting paranoid and question all the decisions I have ever made based solely on internet research. Therefore I googled the phrase, “algorithms rule the world” and was not surprised that it brought back 19,200,000 results within 0.56 seconds. Speed is one reason why I like researching online. The first result was a BBC article discussing Kevin Slavin’s video. I wonder, if my watching the video before this search could have influenced this result? I would like to know, if everyone typing this same phrase in the search engine would get back the same result. As you can see the seed of mistrust against the all powerful algorithm has germinated in my mind. In everything I do online, I was beginning to see a conspiracy to manipulate my ideas and views. A war has begun in my head; a war between man and the machine he created. In an act of defiance against the relevance determined by an algorithm, I clicked page by page forward. I was curious to see how many of the 19 million hits would Google show me until I saw the following message on page 69, “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 682 already displayed.If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.” Here too I found the word “relevant”. I think “Relevant” and other forms of this words, is a euphemism in the digital age for “The Internet Knows What Is Best For You”. I was curious to see, what information the 682nd result could add to my search on how algorithms are influencing our world. (Isn’t there a saying; Curiosity killed the cat?)

It was a blog post discussing how SEO campaigns could still make use of backlinks post Panda. I considered myself to be quite internet savvy before I joined the blogging world. Suddenly I was confronted with terms like SEO, backlinks and SERP and they were not part of my existing vocabulary. More importantly what is Google doing with an endangered species? I imagined a lonely panda sitting in a Google office somewhere in the world, forced to press any key on a keyboard, which would determine the ranking of own blog in a Google search. The duress this poor animal is under is comparable to what Homer Simpson is feeling in this scene; just substitute Homer with a giant panda.

As I continued to reading the post, I found out that Panda is another name for an algorithm used by Google, to ensure that sites with original and high quality content be shown before sites with low quality and copied or duplicated content, when queried in the search engine. Now I have evidence that the power of algorithms extend beyond the realms of the digital world. As a new blogger, I catch myself looking at “My Stats” page at regular intervals. The feeling of disappointment on a low traffic day is a demotivating factor. Instead of wondering what I write about to attract more readers to my page, I should have been looking at ways to improve my ranking on a Search Engine Results Page and focus on Search Engine Optimization. Does this mean that successful bloggers are those who know how to make use of algorithms to their advantage?

My view of the digital has become clearer after my research on algorithms. It is not possible to escape the clutches of algorithms. They are everywhere and in certain ways they do make our lives easier. But the next time I am researching a topic, I would make use of several search engines and look beyond the first three pages to see, if the information I am really looking for is categorised as irrelevant by an algorithm and pushed to the back of the list.

Related Articles:

  1. Huffington’s Best of TED 2011 List
  2. Kevin Slavin’s TED Talk
  3. Wikipedia Article on Algorithm
  4. BBC Article, When algorithms control the world
  5. Top SEO Tips and Tricks

2 thoughts on “Algorithms Led Me To Panda

  1. “Algorithms Led Me To Panda 366 Degree” ended up being a splendid post,
    cannot help but wait to read through much more
    of ur blogs. Time to squander a bit of time on the net lmao.
    Thanks -Alberta

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