Bringing the Blogosphere to the Masses


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I recently returned from giving two weeks of workshops on using the Web for research and was surprised at the number of people who were unfamiliar with blogs and their use for research purposes. One of the first questions I heard was, "How do I search blogs? That's not on Google, right?" Well, the 800-pound gorilla has made another hefty move, and now we can use Google to search at least some of the blogosphere.

The tool (http://blogsearch.google.com) is still in beta, and as of mid-September, the blog-search option does not appear on the main Google search page, which as we all know, is the only search page most users see. Eventually word will trickle out, though, and the over-25-year-old set will finally discover what the buzz about blogs is all about.

Note that everyone's definition of a blog is different; in Google's eyes, a site "counts" as a blog if it offers a feed (RSS or Atom) and is updated regularly (which could drag in a whole lot of sites that are using these as syndication tools but don't actually include any blogging). One potentially significant limitation is that Google indexes only the content in the feed; for blogs that send out only snippets in their feeds, much of the blog's content isn't searchable.

In any event, if it has the Google brand, it will get adopted. I am waiting for the first time I hear, "I Googled his blog, but he isn't talking about me." I wonder what the average Web searcher's reaction will be to the somewhat self-referential nature of the blog universe. Many blog entries contain links to other blogs; in fact, some blogs are little more than collections of headlines from other blogs. For searchers unfamiliar with the protocol of cross-linking, this could feel like they have been dropped into Alice's Wonderland rabbit hole: you follow one link to another page

It also will be interesting to see how quickly Google Blog Search gets adopted, and what impact that will have on people's overall impressions of the blogosphere. My hunch is that many will react by recoiling in horror ... they thought they had information overload before—now they have tapped into yet another search tool that returns thousands more sites than they can possibly look at.

A more interesting question is, how will this affect how people search for news? Blogs, by their nature, comprise current material, and newsworthy events tend to spawn a lot of blog postings. Because of this, people may learn that one of the quickest ways to get information (with absolutely no guarantees about the quality of that information) is to search the blogosphere.

For example, what would have happened if Google Blog Search had been available during the first few days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans? A date-limited search shows that we would have turned up all kinds of news-related content: first-person accounts of rescue operations, maps of the affected areas, press releases from the White House, photos of the storm damage, and so on. Given the unmediated nature of blogs (both a blessing and a curse), they may become Web searchers' alternative to the mainstream media. Granted, most under-25-year-olds probably do not consume the mainstream media now, but those of us who grew up in the days of Walter Cronkite have not entirely shed our trust in the value of news that has had to get past the sharp eye of a news editor.

Thinking about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes on as search engines calculate relevance of retrieved Web pages, I am also curious about what impact Goggle Blog Search will have on its ability to better evaluate the relative significance or influence of Web pages. I am guessing that Google bought Pyra (the owner of Blogger.com) for the same reason that Ask Jeeves bought Bloglines. The ability to mine the links contained within blog entries is huge; while search engines rely on link analysis as one clue to determining the influence or significance of sites, analyzing blogged URLs, and seeing what RSS feeds people are subscribing to is tremendously useful information. Think of it: rather than relying just on the secret sauce that they already use to calculate relevance, Google can now chew on information about what people actually want to read on a regular basis.

And blogs give us access to content from the invisible Web. I'll never forget the thrill (OK, so I'm strange) when I was looking for information on how the European Union was addressing voice over the Internet, and found a blogged entry to an EU study that was theoretically available on www.europa.eu.int but, in reality, un-findable. Blogs provide access to invisible Web content, and that may be one of the enormous impacts of search engines' acquisitions of blog sites.