Tyranny of the SEO Church

Following up on last week's post about Google's contributions to the Echo-chamber, I want to expand on one point:

What are the responses of Christian web ministries when their websites get less hits because people self-select "Saddleback" or "CrossWalk" and drive up their narrow viewpoints on the search lists?
I started to think about this more.  As more and more people turn to the Internets for answers, what if the top 10 hits on theological questions become the most read and thus the "standard?"  Read on to see what the tyranny of a search-savvy viewpoint might become.

Wikipedia dominates Google Search results.This becomes more and more likely with the emergence of Google offering the top results in searches to Wikipedia.  Nick Carr ran some google searches for a year or so and documented wikipedia entries moving into the top spot of those searches in a year's time.  Should we worry about this?  Maybe. (hat tap: Andrew Sullivan)
[W]hat we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history's eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia - and I admit there's much to adore - you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing.

Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?
Hmm.  While Wikipedia's mystique is of a huuge number of editors, a populist ideal, the reality (from our "What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia" series) is that a small number of editors really put together the pages.  So, in other words, the top search result in Google isn't written by computers, but by small groups of Wikipedia gatherers and editors.

Is this bad?  With any ownership of information by a small group of people, I would worry.  I would worry about a group of evangelical Christians rewriting the Atonement entry of Wikipedia to be entirely blood atonement, which is not representative of all of Christianity, yet it gets top billing in Google.

Trouble brews when one party controls information.Jonathan Brink wonders the same thing on his post called "the End of Myth" where he describes how control of information (historically the Magisterium) begats myths to sustain that control:
The power of myth is essentially this: If I control truth, and you want to know truth, you need me. And if you need me, I can tell you what to think, how to act, and even where to give your money. I can even create visions of a hell that exists when you don’t follow me. I can in essence control you through fear. And when the cost is your soul, the weight gets increased exponentially. And worse, I don’t need to be right. I just need you to believe I’m right...

Magisterium power lies in the control of information. To protect orthodoxy, the Magisterium essentially withheld Scripture from people, providing it in a foreign language.
See the relationship?  For the Magisterium, they controlled information flow and propogated myth that reinforced their position.  For Google, they control information flow, allegedly by computers, but wikipedia is clearly edited by a small group of humans.

Could theological viewpoints be search-optimized, or worse, buried?What it means to me is that any theological viewpoint that receives strong SEO (search engine optimization) can become the new "truth."  If you can get that viewpoint to the top of google searches, or better to cover the majority of the first page of results, then that becomes more and more "truth."  And this alliance between Wikipeda and Google can perpetuate this narrow viewpoint and bury (send to a lower ranking) theological viewpoints that do not agree with the SEO viewpoint.

I'm not wearing a tinfoil hat, this is happening today.  Search for the United Methodist Church on Google and the Wikipedia entry comes up #1 (ABOVE the umc.org website! Seriously!).  Thus the publicly editable website is above the UMC-written doctrine.  But to the point: in the section on "beliefs on homosexuality" (click here), there's very little nuance of the doctrine.  A UM friend of mine edited the section to better reflect the conflicting doctrines on this issue.  Within hours, it was deleted and the monolithic viewpoint restored.  This kept on for several days until the UM gave up.  So, to any gay UMs wanting to see themselves in UM doctrine, they did not see it because of one or two people who kept reverting the UM Wikipedia article to its monolithic viewpoint.

The Tyranny of the SEO Church...what next?So, the tyranny of the SEO Church is that any theological viewpoint which receives higher status thanks to SEO efforts (either coordinated or consequential) becomes more "true" and read than opposing viewpoints.   It doesn't become more true in fact or validity, but like the Magisterium, true in our belief that it is true.

Whew.  Tinfoil hats on.  I have more to write about this, but that's the gist.  Thoughts so far to help me focus this conversation a bit?


Brian January 30, 2009 at 7:06 AM  

Wow. I've thought about various parts of this but I don't think I've every connected them together in such a way.

It's tempting to take this knowledge and try to "counter" it by grabbing up or competing for top spots, but somehow that seems like more of the same.

Good thoughts to stew on. I'd like to hear some ideas on how we can help provide theological diversity (or at least freedom).

Creed Pogue,  January 30, 2009 at 4:22 PM  

If you take the joke to heart and actually treat Wikipedia as the "fount of all human knowledge" then that is your problem. In order to know the truth, you have to listen to many voices and then DISCERN. But, other than a "conspiracy to make money," acting like Google is in on the "conspiracy" and is today's Ministry of Truth is tinfoil hat behavior.

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