March 27, 2022

The Internet: An Extension of Google

There exist many tech companies who are right around or above the size of Google. We usually group them into this subtly suggestive term “FAANG” (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google).

And yet few, I reckon, have the control that Google does over the world’s information.

The Power of Concealment

It is quite obvious that Google has the ability to block absolutely any website it wants. Most probably, throughout their entire system.

Considering that Google probably handles about 3-6 billion searches per day, they have enormous control over the information people see.

This is, of course, obvious. I think, however, that this control doesn’t just affect what people see, it also affects how developers build their applications.

Suggestive Power

Anyone who has worked in marketing, web development, or something similar in the last decade has likely heard of, or has worked with, Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

For the unaware, SEO is merely the process by which a webmaster (developer, etc.) tweaks the content, code, assets, etc., of a website so as to please specific search engines, like Google.

In practice, this usually means making sure the title of a page uses an <h1> tag, making sure all <img />s have alt tags, and so on.

One way to look at it, and the way most people do, is “I’m adjusting my site so that it is preferred over other results—so that it shows up higher.”

This makes sense. After all, a website is no good without any users—if your users can’t find your site, they won’t go to it.

You, as a webmaster, therefore, have an incentive to play by the rules of SEO; you have an incentive to do what Google “suggests.”

I know. I’ve done it.

I think we overlook, however, just how much control they really have.

Just a Thought

Assume you’re operating a big blogging website. You use ads, so the site is actually a decent source of income. Maybe the specific types of content you write is more of a “one-and-done” sort of thing from the perspective of your users. That is, they only really visit you once in awhile.

As such, your revenue is directly linked to your traffic. If people can’t find your site, you don’t get paid.

...

Let’s take this a tad further.

Let’s say Google wakes up one day and decides, “I’m going to stop showing results for websites that use an invalid order of heading ( h[1-6]) tags.”

Disregarding the shock that would hit probably every web developer out there, this would be the prompt of an incredible action: people would do it.

What if your entire livelihood rested on your website? What if Google decided to stop showing it?

It is this amount of control that dictates, in a general sense, how the web is built.

“Those SEO Guys”

You may be saying, “well, sure. Google does have a lot of control, but it’s not like they use it, right? Surely, such a big change in their results would be met with a lot of hesitation.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true. In fact, Google has done something just like this before, back when they said they would start rating AMP pages higher in results.

In my time working as a freelancer and a contractor for some tech companies, I’ve met more than a few of “those SEO guys.”

If you know what I’m talking about, you know, if you don’t, you don’t care.

Generally, these are the webmasters (usually content writers) who dedicate 80% of their time to pleasing Google. The people who won’t let you publish a page of a website until it has been “reviewed” by some so-called “SEO masters.”

Usually, they just send files to some company and pay them double the cost of writing the file to tell him, “all’s well.”

SEO is usually not some static list of things you should change. It is constantly evolving. Google updates their algorithm, probably, daily.

Still, the problem exists: Google can ultimately not only control what information is seen, but how that information is constructed as well.

What can be done?

Dealing with tech companies with the prominence and importance of Google is difficult. Some immediately jump to governmental control, wherein Google would be “kept in check,” and not allowed to enact major changes to the web.

This, of course, has its problems.

For starters, how can we trust “the government” (obviously, a specific team assigned to Google) to know the consequences of certain things?

I mean, go tell any government manager, “Help! Google plans to force all developers to make their heading tags ordered, or else their site won’t show up in search results!”

Yeah, that’ll get you far.

...

Very recently, Josh Renaud of Missouri uncovered “a flaw in a public website run by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that exposed thousands of teachers’ sensitive information.” [1]

How? Inspect element. Literally.

Inspect element, the HTML source code of a website, is voodoo magic to mostly everyone. I know, because I remember looking at it before I was a developer.

One time, in fact, I logged into my school’s grade system and used Inspect element to change my GPA. (I actually had to lower it from 4 to 2, to temporarily prank my parents that I was failing; not what you thought? It was pretty much at this point that I became aware of how web pages were built. They are just files written a specific way!)

Regardless, my parents had no idea how I had done it. My natural informative nature prompted me to tell them how. The first time I opened the inspect element window, the screen was met with confused squinting on behalf of my parents. It is beyond the scope of any conceivable language. It is deceptive, however, in that there are some discernible words throughout—class=, for instance.

My point is that you really have to convince people that you’re not breaking something or doing something illegal (”uhh... yeah, 911? My son changed his grade on a website. I think he’s hacking.” (this didn’t happen to me haha)).

And no, this “I think you’re hacking” view is not specific to your tech-unsavvy mother, it extends to the governors of entire states:

Gov. Mike Parson falsely accused me of being a “hacker” in a televised press conference, in press releases sent to every teacher across the state, and in attack ads aired by his political action committee. [2]

He waited anxiously for four months before the charges were dropped.

Ignorance truly does prevail.

If it takes 4 months to convince a few people that clicking “Inspect Element” is not a crime, then how can we depend on (very probably) equally ignorant people to protect the internet from the control of Google?

Obviously, I may be overestimating or underestimating their ignorance. After all, it may happen that the very person in charge of Google is a master web dev—very aware of the damage they could cause. You simply never know.

The problem, however, is that something of this magnitude shouldn’t be put into the hands of chance. They are either in check or they are not, and it takes experts in the field to explain the importance of what they are attempting to protect.

Final Thoughts

Google doesn’t control the entire internet. After all, I can go buy a $5 VPS and set up an Apache web server in less than a few minutes, to which you’d be able to visit directly in any web browser.

But, say the above paragraph to your grandma, or any average Joe on the street, and they won’t know what half of those words mean!

For most people, as indicated by what I’ve seen and heard, their understanding of the internet is almost always an extension of Google.

For them, every website is at least two steps away: A search on Google → The website they want to view.

Of course, this entire article is specifically about Google (in my opinion, they have the most control of information; AWS by Amazon, for instance, might have more over the availability of that information), but this fact of control over the internet extends to other companies.

If Apple wanted to, they could stop showing my house on Apple Maps. It would be forever erased, and anyone looking near it would forever see an empty plot of land; history, for those who don’t verify, would have been rewritten.

This, I think, is when people talk about the “Information Age.” It is, after all, the most valuable commodity. And if you have the power to control it, you have the power to control anything.

Thank you for reading.

References & Further Reading

[1 & 2]: https://joshrenaud.com/pd/josh-renaud-personal-statement.pdf

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