I first learned about Toxoplasma a few years ago on the blog of Peter Watts, author of my favourite SF novel of all time (‘Blindsight’, which also features what is arguably the scariest and most plausible concept of vampirism). Reading about this parasite made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, as chances are I am one of the multitude of infected people, and my own behaviour may be subtly altered by this lifeform’s effects on my brain.
So when I sat down to write my presentation for SAScon 2014 about how Google’s webmaster recommendations are subtly altering our online behaviour to conform to Google’s desires, the analogies with Toxoplasma quickly came to mind.
Here’s how it goes: The Toxoplasma gondii parasite is a lifeform that reproduces primarily in cats. When it has infected a rodent, it will settle in the infected host’s brain, and subtly alter the rodent’s behaviour. Rats and mice that are infected by Toxoplasma Gondii will become more active, less social, and more likely to take risks and explore open areas. Rodents will also often be attracted to the scent of feline urine.
This of course leads to a higher risk of being eaten by cats – which is exactly what the parasite wants, because it can only reproduce in the body of a cat.
This is akin to how Google works on the world wide web. Google is the first truly dominant search engine in the western world. Because everyone wants to rank high in Google and get all that juicy traffic, we will do whatever we can to please Google and follow their guidelines and recommendations.
Google has realised that having this army of webmasters following its every whim can be quite useful. So, what is Google doing with this incredible amount of influence over the world wide web?
Google makes a lot of recommendations about how websites should be built and structured, and the technology that should underpin every website. Google also makes very clear with it doesn’t like, things it doesn’t want you to implement.
Most of Google’s recommendations and guidelines are in fact good for user experience. There’s no denying that, overall, many of Google’s recommendations make for a better web.
But there are also a number of recommendations that help no one but Google itself. Things that make it easier for Google to crawl and index the web. And these recommendations are the ones we see more and more of.
Take the recommendations highlighted above. They have nothing to do with improved UX, and everything to do with making Google’s crawlers and indexers run a bit more efficiently and give Google greater access to the information you publish online.
But these recommendations, intended to help Google, have an unfortunate side effect. It means that instead of Google adapting to the way the web is evolving, Google is in fact restricting the evolution of the web. Google’s enormous influence on the web means that websites will try to conform to Google’s framework, and that results in a web that is shaped how Google wants it.
Google is the cat here, and the recommendations it makes in its webmaster guidelines and Matt Cutts videos are the memetic parasites that it uses to infect us. When we are infected by Google’s parasitical recommendations, we will alter our behaviour – i.e. our websites – to conform to Google’s wishes and make our information more accessible, easier to crawl and index and for Google to make sense of.
This in turn fuels Google’s ecosystem, enabling Google to take over interesting and profitable niches (travel, finance, knowledge, local, etc.) and grow its profits.
The end result is a World Wide Web that, instead of an open platform for innovation, mirrors Google’s desires: the Google-Shaped Web.
This Google-shaped web allows the search engine to exert an enormous amount of control over the direction the web is heading in, ensuring it’ll maintain its dominant position indefinitely. We will never see a new rival service rise and supplant Google – in a Google-shaped web, competitors will be choked to death or bought.
We are stuck in Google’s ecosystem, and nothing short of drastic intervention is going to change that.
P.S. There’s a good chance you too are infected by Toxoplasma gondii, and your thoughts and behaviour might be slightly different as a result…