Google’s Search for Good Taste

Categories: Google
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Published on: July 30, 2012

Google’s Relentless Quest ()

Retro Robot

You may think that the goals of modern search engines are an entirely new thing in human history. You would be wrong. Yes, the technology has never appeared before, and yes, the stakes are completely different than they’ve ever been. But Google’s relentless quest is one that humanity has been concerned with for millennium, maybe longer. It is the quest for that mysterious and changeable quality I’ll call good taste.

That, I’m sure, is not what you expected me to say. Surely, as a business their concern is money, as a brand it is reputation, and as software it is a kind of transparent functionality that is both smart and resilient. Of course, all that is true. But all of that is dependent on whether Google can tap into a sense of taste and hold onto it. No easy task.

But Why Taste?

I may have said it before, but I believe that human beings, no matter the culture or economy, only really produce four types of things that hold value: tangible goods, services, advertising space, and art. It’s art, however, that has both defined us and confounded us throughout time. Whether it’s 73,000-year old jewelry, 40,000-year old cave paintings, or the latest music release on Billboards, the chain of art as a product is unbroken.

There are a number of interpretations of why we produce art; a more basic question that I want to ask is how. My word for what separates art from non-art is taste. It’s that unconscious, un-definable, yet surprisingly shared sense that something is, well, art. We use it all the time, instinctively, and yet when asked what, exactly, it is about something that makes it art, even the best graphic artists have trouble making it clear.

Art in the Age of Mass Production

So what has any of this got to do with Google? While we have produced art forever, it seems technology and industry has brought us to a point of contention. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve worked hard to dissect anything of value and make the reproduction of that thing as cheap as possible. (Well, not always…) We design assembly lines, we build robotic machines, and we write more and more complicated programs. We’re getting to the point where humans simply can’t make certain things any more cost effective. So what’s the next step? Automation: take the humans out of the equation.

Digital Nightmare

Mechanically speaking, that’s still a dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective). But in the software world, we’ve been automating simple tasks for decades, and we’re getting closer and closer to automating extremely complex tasks. Take, for instance, Google’s recent Penguin update to help automate the process of finding the best and removing the worst websites for the results page.

Automating Taste?

So here is the point of contention that I mentioned above. Business is hungry for automation, but good taste seems to naturally resist it. I wouldn’t hesitate to say some engineering designs are art, but when the design translates into a mass-produced product on the shelf at a department store, well, let’s just say it loses a lot of its luster, at least.

The same is apparently true about web pages.

Having a website is more and more essential to businesses, big and small, local and international. And no website prize is more sought after than that magic top-three ranking in a Google search for a relevant keyword. But how does your business get that?

Almost since the term SEO was coined, there have been those who want to make SEO cheaper by automating it. But, like the mass-produced products in my example above, if Google constantly serves up obviously mass-produced websites in the top spots, people will quickly turn to other search engines and the giant will fall. So, you see, Google needs to find the sites that meet not only our request, but our sense of taste as well.

Up until recently, Google has applied what Copyblogger writer Sonia Simone called a “quiet army of employees”. That approach works, to a point, but scaling an army to keep up with the growth of the Internet is necessarily expensive. So, in what I see as an extreme case of Internet irony, Google is working on automating their efforts to root out other people’s automated efforts. Yes, it seems that this is a campaign to out-automate each other.

So who can win?

I can’t say right now, as things are just evolving too quickly. When I first started working in marketing, I could not have predicted the meteoric rise of social media (though I was pretty proud of my own MySpace page). It’s possible some other way of gracefully matching automation (say, as a platform) with cheap human ingenuity (such as our instinct to freely “share” information) will solve the problem. But until then, I believe the lesson for businesses, especially those that wish to remain resilient in their marketing, is to spend much more time, effort, and money getting the right personnel than they spend on cheap automation software or “offshore link-building” schemes as those methods alone are doomed to fail.

It’s all about taste for the consumers, and, as I said, taste resists automation. 73,000 years of evolving this strange sense can’t be automated in a couple dozen years of information technology.

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