Perhaps the greatest ethos surrounding Google’s success is its — and users’ — faith in the algorithm. Users trust Google, and have faith that the results provided are accurate and helpful.

Sometimes, however, that trust can be misplaced.

Recently, a student in one of my classes gave a presentation on Google, and proceeded to explain how Google ranks search results using an algorithm called…..PigeonRank:

Why Google’s patented PigeonRank™ works so well

PigeonRank’s success relies primarily on the superior trainability of the domestic pigeon (Columba livia) and its unique capacity to recognize objects regardless of spatial orientation. The common gray pigeon can easily distinguish among items displaying only the minutest differences, an ability that enables it to select relevant web sites from among thousands of similar pages.

By collecting flocks of pigeons in dense clusters, Google is able to process search queries at speeds superior to traditional search engines, which typically rely on birds of prey, brooding hens or slow-moving waterfowl to do their relevance rankings.

When a search query is submitted to Google, it is routed to a data coop where monitors flash result pages at blazing speeds. When a relevant result is observed by one of the pigeons in the cluster, it strikes a rubber-coated steel bar with its beak, which assigns the page a PigeonRank value of one. For each peck, the PigeonRank increases. Those pages receiving the most pecks, are returned at the top of the user’s results page with the other results displayed in pecking order.

PigeonRank, of course, is a hoax, part of Google’s 2002 April Fool’s Day joke. But how did my student fall for it in 2009?

Simple. He trusted Google.

The first result when you search Google for “How does Google work?” is a link and a blurb purported to describe precisely that:

My student clicked on the link, read, and digested the information. He trusted Google.

Sure, a bit more information literacy might have tipped him off that this was a joke, but, like many folks, he had no real clue how Google works and simply trusted the result. (At the bottom of the page is a disclaimer that it is just a hoax, but he must not have seen it.)

So, making this a teaching moment, we learn from this experience that:

  1. Many people still do not understand how Google works.
  2. Many people trust Google search results and believe that what appears first is the correct information.
  3. We need to teach information literacy as a core competency for all students.
  4. We need to think about whether Google has any kind of responsibility to ensure hoaxes (especially of its own making) are marked as such within Google results. (I’m not necessarily suggesting this, but it makes for a good classroom discussion)

UPDATE: The minds at Crooked Timber have a nice discussion of this episode…

UPDATE: This item has been picked up over at MetaFilter.

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