The collective contextedness of online interaction.
We are accustomed to overhearing a partial conversation and the misinterpretion of the speakers’ intention that often follows due to its absence of context. In a similar way, an author’s intent in a single sentence cannot be truly parsed without having also read the surrounding sentences, paragraphs, columns or pages. Without discernment (most often following up with the speaker/author as to their real intent), these misdirected interactions generally result in confusion, hurt feelings, and humor.
One of the benefits of life online is that we should be unable to simply “bump into”, “trip over” or “mistakenly hear” things in such a way. Digital indexing is one of strict output-reflecting-input, an extreme binary function of You Get What You Pay For.
We now know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although a search term is hard-typed with intent into Google, it can only be based upon a keyword phrase that, at best, simpifies and summarizes the user’s desired outcome in as few words, and usually, in as few characters, as possible. Instead of the implied desire being returned in an apples-to-apples format, this abstraction instead creates a frame around the information the search query returns.
Google delievers this abstraction as its all-holy SERP (search engine results page) which content providers claw and scratch their way to be a part of, because, for all intents and purposes, that which is not seen here is not seen at all.
For internet marketers, this abstraction is considered sufficient context, with entire subindustries sprouted around gaming the algorithm for increased visibility (never mind the intent or value of the attached content). Google’s Penguin and Panda updates have made huge inroads into trying to reestablish context mathematically.
What they will likely be unable to overcome, however, is that, because of the generalized nature of the user’s search query, the possibility of ambiguity across quantitified variables is incredibly, if not error prone, then fundamentally inexact. Quantifiable results must be had only in context of the user interpretation of them. Sitting across from the ‘hard data’, the user introduces their own, more subjective contexts both before (intention, spelling) and after (hurriedness/laziness) attempting a search.
So while the individual search results can be seen as infalliable by definition (any search always returns “a” result, even if Null), the information the results direct us to, however, is more often than not, taken completely out of context even the curated context of a front-page SERP.
The obvious core challenge to indexing keyword to intent is the ambiguity of so much of the english language. Even a phrase as seemingly specific as “school administration” may result in results advising how to perform as an assistant principal or a office contact list for a college. We have learned to expect and further curate such results in a way that we are able to self-identify from a much more refined set of choices than the entire global network of all web pages that exist.
This second layer of human criticality is actually what makes Google a functional tool. Employing it a small price to pay for the convenience of onine search. And yet, as humans do, we tend to expect more from the tool and less from ourselves over time. Users rarely continue past the first page of results provided, with over half of them being satisfied with the very first result they find.
Search advertising may also impact the hierarchy of results, and thus force more user-relevant results off of the first page in favor of those that have more relevance to the provider (if only for their income producing qualities).
With the ‘whole of human intelligence’ (arguably) available online via search, it stands to reason that this common form of misinterpretation has been globalized, normalized and expanded. At the same time, this much larger pool of choices can be threaded through the head of the top-ten-results-minus-paid-placements needle.
It makes one wonder: Just how much of the internet never gets seen? How far skewed may our perception of knowledge become as context slips further beyond page two?
As search replaces research—better: ‘using’ replaces ‘reading’—the single sentence being taken out of context has become every sentence. Only a combination of patience, critical thought, and the desire to click through is capable of realigning subjective intent with factoid-by-association.