If you google “pike creek valley dog walkers,” an image of my beaming parents and our grumpy-looking mutt Shadow pops up on the right side of the screen. The link to the web site that my dad created for their dog walking business appears second to the top of the list of search results, beneath only an ad. Because my dad included our address in the information he provided on the site, Google also shows (slightly horrifyingly) a picture of the front of my house taken from Google Earth. My parents are highly visible, even down to the place where they live.
I mention this somewhat creepy phenomenon (which, to be honest, I didn’t even know about until a few minutes ago) because as I was reading through Chapter Four of Blown to Bits, the section about Search Engine Optimization (148-151) triggered a memory in my brain. A few years ago, while my parents were struggling to get their tiny business off the ground after both getting laid off from their jobs, my dad explained to me how he shot their web site to the top of the Google list. This morning I called home so that he could explain again what he did.
“I included almost every related search term that I could possibly think of on the home page,” he reminisced proudly. “But the trick is, I typed them in really small font, and I typed them in the same color as the background of the page.”
When he had first told me about this method years ago, it didn’t occur to me that it could be seen as unethical or that Google could potentially take down the site. Even now, I don’t think it’s a bad thing; without popping up at the top of the list, my parents might not have been able to stir up enough customers to keep their business alive. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much my dad’s effort to move them to the top of the list actually has to do with their placement. But this week’s reading, in connection with my parents’ experiences with starting a small business, has shown me that search engines, Google in particular, can bestow the power of visibility on people and businesses. And this power has a very real impact on real people’s lives.
Google is complicated. It has hidden algorithms and can save information that people would prefer to delete and ultimately, for many of us, determines what we see and what we don’t. It contains enormous power hidden in a form that most of us rarely even question; I originally considered writing about Google’s censorship of itself for this blog post, and I found myself searching for the information—you got it—on Google. Do you find the power of this one search engine to be alarming, simply convenient, or something else altogether?