“Some say Google is God. Others say Google is Satan.”
– Sergey Brin
You’re walking down a busy road in Central London. Suddenly you hear someone call out your name, only to then turn around and find that it’s a boy from your ninth grade Biology class. Yes, the one who sat next to you the entire year with not a single word ever exchanged. And yet here you are, nearly nine (ten? eleven?) years later, and somehow you’ve managed to cross paths again despite all odds. Slowly reflecting upon this as you walk home later that night, you realize that the precursor to your ‘chance’ meeting most likely involved car-travel, plane-travel, coinciding appointments in a shared vicinity, and/or a possible affinity to coffee in Soho. Granted, this scenario is rare. But even more so is the prospect of running into and recognizing the intelligence operative or typified hacker whose job is to keep tabs on you and your various benign activities. Yet, on a daily basis, these hypotheticals manifest themselves in the virtual world. And in the blogsphere, more often than not, the person who is being searched will find out.
The curiosity behind this post piqued when an old family friend Googled the name of a member of my family and came across my site, only then to realise who it belonged to and that yours truly is no longer a young girl in elementary school because the last time we saw each other was too long ago for me to quite recall. Upon leaving a comment on a piece and subsequently visiting the site again, I began to notice this happening more frequently with some other individuals I knew: specific search terms followed by comments by the person in question. But it was more than that: many of the search terms were, of course, inputted by people with whom I am not acquainted. And quite frankly, some of the terms appear a bit disturbing as I look over the growing list since I began making record of those I found most unique or surprising.
Though some non-bloggers may not be aware of the following as understandably there is no need to be, bloggers are and must become fully familiar with the ‘back-end’ of their blog-publishing platform–providing interface editing tools with a host of options ranging from the Akismet filter (curbing unwanted spam comments on posts) to CSS editing capability (for the creative blogger’s aesthetic needs). Equally if not more useful is the Blog Stats feature: Google Searches and the like play a major role alongside the line charts for daily visits and tally counts for the most popular posts. Through them, one is able to find out what information people are after, where the prospective audience’s interests and concerns lie, and even what countries the hits may be coming from due to link referrers and searches conducted in other languages. That then allows for finer tuning and callibration of posts, general points to consider while continuing to write and publish.
Search engine terms have more significantly drawn my attention to some rather peculiar points about blogging, cyberspace and humankind in particular. Of course the revelation of the paragraphs above or my impending procession into the disclosure of some search terms I have thus far encountered may be deemed a tad risqué: after all, the blog is a safe and comfortable medium through which people can express themselves and interact with one another indirectly in order to create a forum that otherwise may not exist. So why go and spoil the mystery and no-strings-attachedness of it all? Well, because it is precisely this level of anonymity that makes it so fascinating. Take for example the following:
The day after the death anniversary of my uncle, a search of his name alongside ‘papers’ came up in the records as a result of a post I had published the day before that included his name. The day after my cousin sent a yet-to-be-accepted friend request upon discovering my membership on Facebook‘s London network (a cousin who I have not seen since 2002 due to my covert self-imposed exile), a search of ‘Badr blog’ appeared in the list along with ‘Badr London’. Coincidences, surely, but when it comes to specific names (especially your own) as well as specific self-coined original terminology used in creative pieces of writing, it makes you wonder who is out there reading your blog and whether or not you know them. It’s one thing to see people checking in via links from other pages, such as another one of your sites or your Facebook profile. But it is an entirely different matter when an assassinated relative’s name turns up in the midst of a sea of terms very much innocuous in comparison (an experience I had with Express Checkout after the suspicious suicide of Ashraf Marwan). And I sometimes do wonder about the individual(s) that keeps accessing the site off of Universidad Autónoma de Madrid’s network…
In addition, aside from the ones that are most baffling because you’re unable to figure out how it was that the given terms connected to anything in your blog posts to begin with (e.g. ‘looking for adopted son november 16,1968’ or ‘CAIRO CONFERENCE NAPKIN BRITISH’, both direct quotes whose correlations I have yet to make out, if at all any), there is a spate of terms that are extremely popular though I would ordinarily think they wouldn’t receive so much attention. ‘Brandon Boyd’ has been an extremely popular man on this blog, and though I like him a lot as evidenced by my post about Incubus featuring a few seconds’ worth of live concert footage, it is after all only a few seconds. ‘Fairuz’ has also received a great deal of attention, though understandably there is an unfortunate drought of information on this musical legend online, and that is precisely one of the reasons I published the post about her in the first place.
There are also the search terms that are configured almost like questions–questions that your site may not answer though you would be able to answer them yourself if asked in person. Comparatively, so much information is sought online and somehow blog-readers come across this or any other blog as a result of the coincidence of specific search terms, though the topic one may be after is not elaborated on the site landed upon. I am then sometimes left with this desire to be able to contact that seeking individual, to help point them in the right direction with their enquiry, perhaps to make a recommendation for further work by that artist or musician over whom they keep happening upon my site. That notion then makes me wonder about the things we may have in common, all those silent visitors who post no comments but return time and time again to read, whether it be out of personal acquaintance, fascination, general curiosity or a need to pass some free time online.
Of course one cannot help but also consider those MySpace stories about deranged individuals who prey on young adolescents or the identity thieves that use blogs and network sites as playing grounds for information-gathering and manipulative (often financial) gain. People happen upon blogs in part due to content, and though there may be a spam filter feature, there is no ‘people filter’. For those many who have personal blogs on which their names (amongst various other things) are exposed to the public, the search engine can become as powerful a weapon as it is a tool. But vigilance and a descerning blogging ‘pen’ are absolutely necessary whether or not one considers safety to be a factor; that’s just good common sense.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that the insatiability of human curiosity is a wonderful and fascinating thing when it’s genuine and not malicious, just another of the several aspects highlighted by the back-end of blogging that are to be appreciated rather than feared. Just as those who Google various topics on blogs are inquisitive, so too are the bloggers themselves when they seek out and deduce information from their Blog Stats’ search details. Admittedly, the mystery and distance involved in it all makes it slightly exciting, involving a little bit of imaginative detective work and serving as a constant reminder of how close together we’ve all been brought as a result of this marvel we’ve come to know as the Internet. And even if it’s less about knowledge or safety and more about getting those high stats, just throw in ‘XXX’ or the word ‘sex’ in the next post and see what happens to your numbers. And now that I just did, I can expect a very interesting list of search terms to soon follow…
– Sarah Badr
© 2008. S.H.Badr, All Rights Reserved.
See also: Love thy neighbour
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