Posts from July 2011.

Conjunction Juncture

“The advent of Google marks off two very distinct periods in Internet history. The optimists remember the age before Google as chaotic, inefficient, and disorganized. Most search engines at the time had poor ethics (some made money by misrepresenting ads as search results) and terrible algorithms (some could not even find their parent companies online). All of that changed when two Stanford graduate students invented an ingenious way to rank Web pages based on how many other pages link to them.” — Don’t Be Evil, The New Republic

If you are under 30, you may not recall a time when Yahoo! was as central to the online experience as Google is now. In 1998, when the search provider was nearing its zenith, I had a realization: I no longer thought of Yahoo! as a “website”, but rather as the Internet itself. I felt as if you could peel back any page available on the net and find Yahoo! beneath it, as though it were the canvas on which the entire web were painted.

Now, of course, I feel that way about Google. And I distinctly remember the day when my allegiance shifted. It was 1999, I was a programmer at Amazon.com, and one of my colleagues, a young guy fresh out of school with a degree in CS, was showing me this new search engine that everyone in his class swore by. He punched in a few words and clicked [Google Search] to illustrate. The moment the results came back I knew I would never use Yahoo! again.

Why? Was it because of Google’s “ingenious way to rank Web pages based on how many other pages link to them”? No, of course not–I was nowhere near savvy enough to pick up on something like that. It was for a much simpler and fundamental reason: Google took your search terms and only returned pages that had all of them, whereas Yahoo!, by default, returned pages that contained any of them. Put another way, Google joined all your words with “and”s where Yahoo! used “or”s. Tired of punching “board games” into Yahoo! and getting lumber companies, I set Google as my home page that same day.

Google’s rapid adoption in the late 90s owes a lot to its web page ranking system, no doubt. But the founders should also get credit for recognizing the fundamental shift in what searchers wanted: fewer results, not more. Where Yahoo! continued to boast about the sheer volume of websites that they would hurl at you, Google, simply by using a different conjunction, was delivering more specific and relevant information at a time when that was desperately sought.

It’s small and simple ideas like this that can make you the most powerful company in the world.

Here are three more recent articles about Google:

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How Disease Works

I am an occasional storyteller at Seattle’s A Guide to Visitors and, late last year, participated in one of their “Best Of” shows. Shortly thereafter I was contacted by B. Frayn Masters, who asked if I would come to Portland and for a similar event that she hosts, a series I knew nothing about called Back Fence PDX. Because Frayn and I have been friends for twenty years, and because I am magnanimous to a fault, I agreed to lend my star-power to her adorable little show, with its audience of presumably no more than a dozen people, composed entirely of family members and devoted friends of the storytellers.

The theme of the evening was “Our Bodies, Ourselves”. Frayn and I spoke several times by phone regarding my story and, in perhaps our third conversation, she mentioned the venue, the Portland Center Stage. “We don’t usually have it there,” she told me, “but we had to get a larger theater for this audience, considering its size.”

“Oh really?” I said, mentally revising my attendance projections to a score or more. “How many people do you expect?”

“Well, the first 800 tickets were gone in a few hours,” she replied, “although we’ve got some more in reserve.”

Oh. Oh my. I have never done anything in front on a crowd even a quarter of that size, outside of anxiety dreams.

Fortunately I arrived onstage very well prepared. By which I mean that the storytellers received complementary beer, and I helped myself to several before it was my turn in front of the horde.

Another storyteller was a gentleman by the name of Arthur Bradford. Ten years ago Mr. Bradford made a small independent film called “How’s Your News”, which I loved and raved about on defective yeti. And Authur remembered this because, at the time, my review was one of the few accounts of his movie available on the web. It was a total moment, he and I realizing all this as we chatted before the show.

I had to go on stage immediately after that performance. Sucks to be me!

The last story of the evening was told by Lauren Weedman, who’s like a bigshot fancypants real life actress, with an IMDB page and eveything. If you watch only one of these videos it should be this one, unless you suffer from Sudden Onset Laughter Induced Death Syndrome, in which case avoid.

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