I’ve been working for over a week on a review of the book Web Dragons:Inside the Myth of the Search Engines. My drafts are copious and they all suck for one reason or another. So in a fit of having to get some damn thing out by the end of the week I give you:
This book is Basic Search Engine Care for People without Library or Computer Science Degrees.
For more then the 20 years a number of community colleges have offered classes in basic car care that were aimed at women. A nice avuncular gent in a shop coat talked about things like:
- What an engine is and how it works.
- Which noises coming from under the car are actually dangerous and which are just annoying.
- How to change a tire when the AAA truck can’t come for two hours and you have a meeting with your boss in 30 minutes.
- How often to take you car to Jiffy Lube for an oil change and why it really does matter.
- How to deal with a mechanic and not get taken.
I never took one of these courses because I know what carburetor means (no, it is not French for don’t fuck with it) but lord knows I have some friends and relatives who damn well should .
Search engines are just like cars. We all use them everyday, and we all assume that they will work properly when we need them, and most of us have no idea how they work.
This book is like that Basic Car Care for Women (and other Non-Gear Heads) class. It starts with a little talk from the teacher(s) about what they mean to do in the class and what we can expect. Then there’s a little history lesson. In this case, a tour thought the ages starting with the first theories about what knowledge is (everyone wave at Plato!) and ending with the current projects aimed at digitizing all of our literature. Like the history lesson in the car class whether or not its amusing or deadly dull depends on the teacher. Witten and his garage mates aren’t terribly funny but they are not dull because they really love this stuff and that enthusiasm shows.
After a coffee and introduce yourself to your neighbors break you move out into the shop and sit on the workbenches while the garage guys talk you through the basic parts of a car and how they work together.
In Web Dragons you get a chapter that describes the web and how it’s built and then a chapter that describes what search engines are and how they work. Depending on your proclivities you’re either going to find this fascinating beyond belief or just a bit tedious. Stay with us here, this is the important part.
Witten and his posse are good teachers. This is complex stuff and they make a good job of pointing out all the pieces and how they work together. The explanations of the different ways of measuring and mapping the web are lovely examples of making something as simple as possible but no simpler. For all that the science involved is heavily math based, I had no trouble following along. Sure I missed one or two bits that had something to do with geometry but my understanding of the ideas wasn’t harmed by it.
So now that you all know what these search engine things are and how they work, its time to look at how things go wrong. Or rather a few of the things that can go wrong. This is “Basic Car Care” not “Theory of Fuel Delivery Systems” so don’t expect anything terribly inidepth. Witten et al, deliver up some of the simpler techniques that are used to mess about with search results and some of the ways that the web and the search engines go about trying to counter those problems.
Then you have to sit through the obligatory lecture on responsibility and safe driving and how there are irresponsible people out there and what you can do to keep yourself safe from the lousy drivers. It’s dull but you can pull out some bits of wisdom from behind the party line. Or at least get a good idea of what the party line is.
The last bit where they predict the future of cars is always fun — anyone remember flying cars? How about your very own personalized searchbot that brings you the results from the Puget Sound Trailers web site after every trial with your favorite riders results highlighted in red?
So why do you care that you now understand the basics of how the web is built and how search engines work? For the same reason you care that you know what to call the parts of your car and how they work together. Because now you don’t have to freak out at every noise the silly thing makes, you know when to get your oil changed, and when you do have a problem the local ForChryHonLexWhatEver dealer won’t be able to charge you $450 dollars for a muffler bearing change.
Knowledge is power and ignorance costs. Whether your head gasket is leaking or your search for “improving gas mileage” has returned a link to a seller of the SuperFuelMAX Pro.
Just in case you did find yourself looking into this device you might also want to have a look at: The FTC case summary.