Google for a grade: UW class to study popular search engine
Special to The Seattle Times
Anyone who knows anything about the Internet knows that "Google" doesn't mean the number one followed by 100 zeros.
Google — the popular Internet search engine — has permeated our lives so much that it has become a cultural icon. It's more than a simple search box that gives Internet users access to 3.3 billion Web pages. People play Google parlor games. They "Google" each other before going on a date. They "spoof" or "bomb" Google to make political statements.
And now — for apparently the first time — a university professor is teaching a class on Google. This class — taught by University of Washington Information School professor Joe Janes — isn't a simple class on Web searching that one might find at a library or a community college. This is a graduate-level course (albeit only one credit) that explores Google as a cultural phenomenon, Google the business, the technology behind Google — and "Google the Ravager of Worlds."
"When my father used the term 'I googled it,' I knew that this was more than a search engine or even an online destination," said Dave Ballantine, a student in the Google course. "This class is more an opportunity to look at what Google is, what effect it has on the Internet community, and how people find — or don't find — information. As an Information School student and a daily Google user, looking at Google through an academic lens seems fascinating."
This class comprises mainly graduate students at the UW's Information School — the former School of Library and Information Science.
Using their interest in research and technology as a backdrop, the 50 students who finish Janes' class in March will have to determine whether Google is in fact good or whether researchers' reliance on such a simple and one-sided search tool is degrading the quality of research.
Janes, who remembers when librarians had to type obscure codes into computers to search detailed library databases, is clearly enamored by the technology. "This just blows me away — that we're sitting in a classroom in Seattle, I type words into this thing and we're getting Web pages from all over the world right with a click of a button," he says. "I'm not overselling Google. I'm talking about the Web. Is this what humanity has been waiting for?"
But the professor — an expert in digital reference and the use of Internet technologies in librarianship — also fears that the quality of research is declining. Instead of going to the library and asking a librarian for help, people rely too much on Google and other Internet search engines that are incomplete, he said.
"It's very easy to go into Google and get an answer, but it's fairly easy to get a bad answer or mythological answer," Janes said. "Google represents an illusion of ease of search. It's easy to use, it's quick and it's free, but it's not the whole picture. Google as a tool is only as good as it's used."
Ballantine, who is earning his master's degree in library and information science, agrees. "It has completely changed the way many — if not most — people access or find information, and not always for the better," he said. "There are a number of issues with finding information via Google that most people don't question: Is this current, is this factual, who wrote this, do they know what they are talking about?"
Students ultimately will have to answer the weighty question of whether Google is good or evil. Along the way, they're studying the technology behind the success of the search engine and Google's business plan.
Janes hopes the much-anticipated, much-discussed possible initial public offering of the company will occur during the next two months so students can delve into the financial numbers.
The students and Janes are also having a lot of fun. In one assignment they searched the Internet to determine whether a class on Google had ever been taught before. Students determined there were no other classes like Janes', but there were many on how to search Google, how to search all search engines besides Google, and that a class similar to Janes was planned at the UW Bothell campus later in the year.
For her part, Google spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez said she knows of no other similar course — but she appreciates Janes' interest.
"In general, Google is supportive of academics and education, and I think courses like this are important in helping more people understand the problems of search and the need for innovative search technologies today," she said.
Janes also had the students engage in the game of "googlewhacking," which is the sport of producing a search query that returns just one result. Examples from the class included "unibrow crosshatch" and "foolhardy tallywhacker" — phrases that may or may not still lead to hits on the site.
Janes said he assigned the exercise to help students get a sense of the range of information on the Web.
"You kind of step back in awe of what we're capable of as a species — good, bad and indifferent," he said.
Students also discussed the practice of "Google-bombing" and "Google-spoofing," where hackers manipulate the technology of the search engine to produce unintended results.
In December, for example, Google searchers who typed miserable failure into the search box were led to the White House's official biography of President Bush.
Bellevue man's brainstorm
It was the result of efforts led by Bellevue resident George Johnston, who with a group of accomplices linked from their Web sites to the Bush biography site using specific anchor text. With Google's technology, the more high-traffic sites that link a Web page to a particular phrase, the more Google tends to associate that page with the phrase and rank it high on its results list.
"This is the real brainchild. This connectedness is brilliant," Janes said to the class, explaining that's what apparently sets Google apart from the other search engines.
But technology aside, most users just want quick answers. And that's what many of Janes' students worry about.
"The kids I work with don't care about the search engine; all they care about is that they get something back that they can slam into a report," said Bob Koreis, a librarian at Federal Way High School who sat in on the class.
Freelance writer Cynthia Flash covers business and technology from Bellevue. Reach her at email@example.com.
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