No, don't "just Google it"

Pretty much the least helpful advice you can give to someone on the Internet, no matter how basic a question they ask, is “just Google it.” You see this especially in technology forums such as those dedicated to programming languages. Someone asks a rather basic question, and, rather than either answer the question or just ignore it, one of the forum’s regulars tells them, often rudely, to “just Google it.” Perversely, this sometimes results in a death-spiral of snark: more than once, I’ve Googled a basic question, only to have the number one search result be a Stack Overflow question whose only reply is, you guessed it, “just Google it.” (I don’t know whether it’s due to changes at Stack Overflow or changes at Google, but these results are much less common now than they were about ten years ago; nevertheless, it’s something I’ve seen happen multiple times.)

This post isn’t about the tech giant and search behemoth called Google; their name, probably by design, has become the generic for Internet search of any kind. I wouldn’t be any more satisfied if someone said “just Bing it” or “just DuckDuckGo it.” My problem is with the insistence that it is somehow an imposition for someone to ask basic questions in a forum, and with the implicit assumption that a search engine should always be one’s first resort.

To the matter of whether it is an imposition to ask a basic question in a forum: I understand the concern. It can be somewhat distracting for forum regulars to see the same basic questions asked over and over again, thus making it harder to sort through and find actual topics of interest. This was the motivation behind Usenet’s practice of including a FAQ or “Frequently Asked Questions” post in newsgroups. But Usenet newsgroups had no inherent filtering or ranking mechanism; when you used a newsreader to read a group, you saw every single post, in the order they were posted.1 Most forums today, from Slashdot to Reddit, have some sort of mechanism by which one can downvote a post, thus helping to filter out lower-quality posts. A lot of these forums have human moderators. If floods of low-quality posts are a concern, it’s a simple matter to downvote or hide these low-quality posts, perhaps with a private message to the poster directing them to the forum’s FAQ.

The more distressing point, to me, is that a search engine should be one’s first resort for answering questions. For one thing, search engines were never designed to “answer questions” in the first place. They were designed to retrieve documents that contained certain text. If anything, they were a more user-friendly alternative to database queries, where the database in question was compiled via massive web-scraping. It was only when the Web ceased to be a fringe phenomenon used mainly by the already technically literate, and started being a tool for the masses, that the transformation occurred. New users of the Internet, who had had very little prior exposure to computers, started typing fully formed questions into search boxes. If someone types in “where is the Taco Bell in Greensboro?”, they don’t want documents containing words like “where” and “is”. They want the address of the Taco Bell in Greensboro. Search engines – Google chief among them – had to adapt in order to handle these natural-language queries more effectively.2 The problem only increased with the advent of smartphones and text-to-speech. Once it became clear that posing questions was many people’s instinctive method for finding information on the Internet, it paved the way for voice assistants like Siri and Alexa that were designed to answer natural-language questions from the outset.

This trend toward prioritizing questions over string search obscured the fact that when you use a search engine, you’re really just trying to find a piece of text that was placed on a website by a person, and which meets certain criteria. And while search engines have gotten much better at translating human languages into search criteria, they’re still just searching other people’s content, and they still have no idea whether a given result is relevant or factual. The best proxy they can use is popularity. The big breakthrough that first allowed Google to outstrip all other search engines (remember Lycos? AltaVista? Of course you don’t.) was their PageRank algorithm, that rated search results not just according to how often the search result appeared within the page, but also how many other pages with that text linked to that page – a decent proxy for popularity in the Web 1.0 days. This inspired a number of Internet pranks, wherein people would link the phrase “miserable failure” to George W. Bush’s web page or “litigious bastards” to the Napster-suing band Metallica.

Of course, it wasn’t just pranksters that realized that search engine algorithms could be gamed. Businesses quickly realized that getting their pages to the top of Google’s results was the surest way to drive traffic to their sites, and so the lucrative field of Search Engine Optimization was born. Ever since then, the Web has been a continuously escalating arms race between search engines, who want their results to be useful enough that people keep using them, and corporations, who want their pages to be as prominent in search results as possible. SEO also inspired the rise of “clickbait” – sites whose very content was almost an afterthought, whose whole purpose was to direct people to the site by any trickery necessary so that they could be bombarded with ads.

Which brings us back to the problem of newbies asking technical questions. Lately I’ve found that when I Google any sort of technical topic – including, perhaps, some basic question about a language’s syntax that ideally should return a link to the official documentation as the first result – I instead get two main types of results. The first is forums such as Stack Overflow, where the top result is often someone asking a very specific question about an esoteric error or use case rather than, say, “does this language use commas or semicolons as list separators”. The second is technical clickbait: sites like the regrettably named “Geeks4Geeks” (which sounds like a dating site for carnival performers), which may answer your question, but bury it in piles of verbiage that are reminiscent of the six paragraphs of biographical irrelevance that precede every online recipe, and surround it with an explosion of ads. Nobody wants to go through all that just to get a simple question answered.

But even worse than the experience one has when “Googling” a question is the cultural shift away from depending on each other and toward depending on mechanisms. I can’t recall a single moment when, in my pre-search engine youth, I asked someone a question, or heard someone else ask a question, and the response was “Have you looked it up in the encyclopedia?” Asking questions of real, live people was just what you did. There was nothing strange about it, and it certainly wasn’t an imposition. It’s true that one usually asked questions of people one knew, rather than strangers. But I also lived through the days of dial-up BBSs and pre-privatization Internet, when it was easy to ask questions of large groups of random strangers, yet search engines didn’t exist. And I don’t recall nearly as much hostility toward simple question-asking then as there is now on most Internet forums.

This heralds a disturbing and growing cultural trend: the use of technology to separate people from each other. When it becomes easier to ask questions of a machine than of other people, we experience even more anxiety when we finally do have to ask others for help. So Big Tech develops even “better” solutions for answering people’s questions without the need for human intervention, and we grow even further apart. Oh, sure, we’re still social creatures! We connect all the time! Via social media. Mediated by machines. In ways that encourage polarization, because flame wars still count as engagement!

I am not saying that our techno-capitalist overlords are involved in any great conspiracy to isolate us from each other and make us dependent on machines. Rather, I think that outcome is beneficial to them, and so, if they notice it’s happening at all, they fail to notice the negative cultural effects, or else assume they must be due to something other than the wonderful tools for “connecting people” they’ve given us. Meanwhile we slide further and further toward a society of isolated individuals incapable of collective action, all watched over by machines of loving grace. Brought to you by Alphabet-Meta-Amazon!

Maybe, when people ask basic questions on forums rather than typing them into a search engine, they’re just rebelling, in a small way, against this technocratic dystopia. Maybe they’d rather get an answer from a person rather than a clickbait site served up by a data-harvesting business. I read recently that a growing trend among Google searches is the name of some product followed by “reddit”. People have learned that if they just search for product reviews, they’ll probably find something that was written by underpaid sock puppets hired by the sellers to artificially pump up their reputation. But if they append “reddit,” they’ll find reviews written by humans. Granted, they’re still using a search engine to get to those reviews. And the reviews are on reddit, which is still technically social media, though it resembles old-school Internet forums a lot more than most social media does. And the answers you get are from the type of people who use reddit – do with that what you will. And I don’t see why sock puppets can’t also post on Reddit, though it would probably be easy to look at their post history to tell whether or not they’re real.3 Nevertheless, the very fact that this is becoming a trend shows that people desperately want something other than tech-oligopoly-curated answers to their questions, and I think this is a good thing.

So please. The next time someone in a forum asks a very basic question that they probably could have typed into a search engine, don’t gatekeep. Answer the question or don’t. But please, for the love of human decency, don’t say “just Google it.”

  1. In the parlance of our times, we’d say that Usenet “had no algorithm,” though I must pedantically point out that sort-by-date is still, in fact, an algorithm. ↩︎

  2. I can remember when any Google search containing words like and or the would be met with the admonition that “‘And’ is a very common word and has been omitted from your query.” ↩︎

  3. Remember those hilarious “Amazon FC Ambassador” sock puppet Twitter accounts that would post about how happy they were slaving away in their warehouses in Bezostan, and their non-Amazon posts were all “Here’s my recent vacation to Stock Photo Beach!”? Who said corporate America doesn’t have a sense of humor? ↩︎

Last modified on 2022-11-13