On first encountering the web in 1996, like most people I was fascinated by two key questions: how can I find information online and how can I enable my own web pages to get found? Like any poet trying to get her head around a problem I constructed real-life analogies—analogies that failed promptly, because a digital world is not a physical world.
By the time I got involved around 1995, Yahoo! and WebCrawler and Lycos were doing their thing, then came LookSmart, Excite, Altavista, Inktomi and Ask Jeeves. Their processes were mystifying, their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) even more so.
Two filing cabinets for the World Wide Web
But Yahoo! stood out. Why? Because in its early years, it didn’t rely on spiders (robots that crawl the web and index and catalogue every page). You could submit your website to Yahoo! for inclusion. Yahoo! used real live human beings to evaluate each site—is it worth listing? is it correctly categorised?—before listing it in a ginormous directory.
(You realise that I’m over-simplifying, of course. This is a little blog post, not a PhD thesis.)
Such a pedestrian system of indexing is unimaginable now, with over 1,860,000,000 websites—oh, seconds later, that figure is way out of date. But it was doable, and kind of comprehensible. You could imagine Yahoo!’s sub-contractors as working librarians in a monstrous ethereal library. You could send them your “book” and they would decide whether it was worthy of inclusion, and which Dewey number would apply. In other words, they were filing websites. There was a “place” for every website, a folder, or a sub-folder, and if every website was filed correctly, they could be quickly discovered.
DMOZ, or the Open Directory Project, was even more noble in concept. Their conceptual filing was performed entirely by volunteer editors. I don’t think they ever developed other layers of search technology, such as web crawlers. And DMOZ closed down in 2015.
Who are you?
- Extreme filing cabinet types have a place for everything, and everything in its place.
- Extreme search engine types wander around searching plaintively for their car keys every day. On a good day, they say “Keys!”, and five sets of keys leap into their arms.
- Most of us fall in the middle, doing our best to file things correctly and failing quite often.
All search facilities are cross-breeds using multiple methods
In the digital sphere, today most search engines combine a raft of criteria into a jealously guarded algorithm that changes frequently. If you were there in the early days, I’m sure you’ve noticed that results have improved exponentially as searchers, publishers, bloggers, developers and search engines refine their techniques.
On WordPress, for example…
- Bloggers can give each blog post a Category (that’s rather like putting the post in a kind of folder dedicated to one type or topic of information).
- Bloggers can list an unlimited number of Tags (other words or phrases that tell people and search engines what the page is about).
- We can also write an SEO Description (a summary of what a particular post is about or for), a “slug” that gives us control over the URL, and an Excerpt.
- WordPress makes it easy to provide titles, captions, alt-text and descriptions for every image we use.
- WordPress gives bloggers advice about how to use all these fields. Not that bloggers follow guidelines as a rule: most of us do our own thing.
- WordPress performs other magic Search Engine Optimisation tricks in the background, buried in code that most of us never see.
All these titbits of information about the topic or function of one particular blog post provide more guidance for search engines, more information for readers as they search, and a higher probability that search results are relevant and listed in order of value to the reader.
In other words, the Filing Cabinet is incorporated into every search engine, and a Search Engine into every Filing Cabinet. This is inevitable, given that digital information does not suffer from the intrinsic limitations of a physical folder.
- To cross-reference information, we had to pack at least two folders with identical information, for example one filed according to topic, one according to date. And we tagged items with coloured labels.
- To file the entire contents of the world wide web, you’d need an outrageous number of categories, making the whole process almost pointless. Take DMOZ: On October 31, 2015, there were 3,996,412 sites listed in 1,026,706 categories. (Source: Wikipedia) One category for every four websites? Imagine a library organised like that, with four books per category.
- To categorise sites perfectly, you would need to see the future.
Search engine technology permeates all our work
Search engines are everywhere, and their success is always connected to a vigorous effort at imposing order on the materials.
Every application that purports to organise our virtual office provides choices between Folders (they might be called Notebooks or Categories or any one of 40 other names) and Tags (again, every developer thinks up a new name for the same thing).
Can you think of any application you use that does not incorporate search? I can’t.
Filing cabinet habits are invaluable for real stuff
Putting everything in its place doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instead we learn from painful experience that it does save time.
I’ve just appointed myself life coach to my 18-year-old grandson, who is suddenly in sole charge of organising his own studies, apartment, meals, money and his time. All alone. He’s doing great, but it’s an overwhelming task. You can picture it, I think? So he’s begun three tiny habits, each with a trigger, and action, and a reward. One is to put away every garment that he takes off. Reward: clear floor space and satisfaction—Nice work! he says. Yes: ideally, every garment will be put in its place, whether a chest of drawers or the washing machine. With such tiny gestures will order emerge from chaos.
I’m a fraud as a life coach, because I badly need to cultivate my own tiny habits. Organising my computer files is a work in progress and always will be. Folders feature strongly and I too drop stray files on the floor (desktop) every day. They all have a place—mainly in the trash.
What of our minds as we shift to instantaneous information feeds?
It’s easy to get sloppy about controlling our own information, now that search engines are brilliant. Yes, yes, excuse me but they are brilliant at what they do. Maybe you hate them but just think back 20 years and count your blessings! Maybe you fear them for their invasion and stealth, but it’s a tradeoff we make while fully informed of the risks.
So has the extreme efficiency of Google changed the way you work and read and think? I believe I’m more scatty. I flick across websites. I taste and taste and taste, half-hoping there’s something more appealing only one click away.
I don’t like this. I yearn for limits, constraints to my information guzzling. I dream of the old days when you had to know where to look.
I’ve recently deleted news apps and Facebook from my iPhone, disturbed by the constant updating on news sites and the random news items on Facebook. For my news I now rely on the radio, the odd newspaper in a cafe, and a couple of long reads per week. It’s a start.
I can’t blame search engines alone for this. But they play a part. I’ll use them forever, but … mindfully? Bring on the tiny habits.