"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Daniel Brandt is a 54-year-old webmaster in San Antonio, Texas, and he’s not a fan of Google. He knows that opinion puts him in the minority. Some people have insulted him for it, and others — mostly webmasters — have told him please shut up, lest Google get upset. “I’ve heard all the stories about Google — how the former cook for the Grateful Dead serves up their lunches,” he says, reciting a point of the Google mythology. “I know people love them, and I’ve been censored on some of the webmaster forums when I get too upset at Google.”
But Brandt doesn’t care, and he’s not going to stop saying it, even if people get mad at him: Google’s no good. Brandt believes that the search engine is unfair, and it doesn’t — as many people think — return the best search results. Brandt runs google-watch.org, a new site that he hopes will act as “point of reference for privacy advocates, journalists and bloggers” who want to know the truth about Google.
What is the truth according to Brandt? Google’s PageRank algorithm, the celebrated system by which Google orders search results, is not, as Google says, “uniquely democratic” — it’s “uniquely tyrannical.” PageRank is the “opposite of affirmative action,” he has written, meaning that the system discriminates against new Web sites and favors established sites. More than that, says Brandt, Google is a careless custodian of private information. When you search for something at Google, it saves your search terms and associates them with a cookie that is set to live on your machine for 36 years. Brandt fears that law enforcement officials could muscle Google into divulging all the terms you’ve ever searched for. Those terms could be “a window into your state of mind,” and are therefore a clear violation of your privacy, he says.
Brandt is not a disinterested party; the dispute between Daniel Brandt and Google is personal. He has spent thousands of hours building a Web site that he believes is both useful and important, and Google, in its algorithmic blindness, has given Brandt a lower page rank than he thinks he’s entitled to. Brandt finds it genuinely hard to believe — and even personally insulting — that Google won’t give him more credit.
For people who love Google and who feel that they can’t live without it — for the vast majority of us, that is — Daniel Brandt’s arguments seem absurd. Because he has a personal stake in the squabble, he’s pretty easy to dismiss: He doesn’t like his Google rank, so it’s not surprising he doesn’t like Google. But Brandt has spent a lifetime questioning the secret machinations of people in positions of authority, and he’s taking on Google in that same spirit. Google has become an authority on the Web, he says, so powerful that we need to watch it closely.
Few people would disagree that Google is an unavoidable part of the Web, a site that you can’t ignore if you want to make it big online. Search engine optimizers — folks who make it their business to get sites good results in search engines — have taken profitable advantage of this fact, and indeed some are finding novel ways to make Google’s power work for them, including one man who is trying to effectively “sell” page rank, a practice that could possibly hurt Google’s effectiveness.
For philosophical as well as technical reasons, Brandt sees PageRank as Google’s central flaw, and he says that Google should abandon the system — and if it doesn’t, people should force it to. “You could almost argue that without good search engines the value of the Internet would be extremely diminished,” he says. “They are to the Internet as your power company is to your daily life. In that sense Google and other large search engines — they ought to be thought of as public utilities. Some sites report that more than half or 75 percent of their referrals come from Google — those are scary numbers.”
Brandt’s call is not new, says Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch. “It’s what people said about Yahoo in like 1997,” he says. “It was very difficult to get listed in Yahoo, and people couldn’t get a response out of the company. And they said, ‘If I can’t get in there maybe they need to be regulated.’ I think it’s that way with Google now because they seem all-powerful.”
He’s right; Google does seem all-powerful. It’s been four years since the search engine came online, and in those years, while the whole industry has crumbled around it, Google, somehow, has only became bigger, better and more popular. To someone like Brandt, someone not unfriendly to conspiracy theories and wary of the “power structure,” the Web according to Google must be a hard thing to bear. And bizarre as it may seem to go after a service as loved as Google is, on evidence as thin as Brandt offers, isn’t it more surprising that it’s taken this long for someone to snap up the google-watch.org domain name? Google seems indomitable, and Brandt’s fight is, certainly, doomed from the start. But perhaps it’s time someone took on Google — even if just for the fun of it.
In his day job, Brandt runs NameBase, an online database of thousands of citations to influential people. The system is principally designed for researchers who want to find books and newspaper articles that mention a specific person. For example, if you’re trying to find out who this character “Donald Rumsfeld” you keep hearing about on the news is, you’d type it into NameBase and find about 50 books and articles that mention the man.
The story of NameBase suggests what admirers might call a certain hardy perseverance — and others would call obsessiveness — in Brandt. According to a review of Namebase that appeared in October 2000 in College & Research Libraries News, the database began in the 1960s when Brandt — described as a “New Left activist” — “began clipping magazine and newspaper articles and collecting investigative books about the power structure.” Brandt did a lot of clipping — he has collected almost 100,000 names from more than 200,000 citations, including some he had to seek Freedom of Information Act authorization to get.
The result is, in the description of College & Research Libraries News, an index populated with articles “designed to uncover secrets or conspiracies in high places.”
David Krane, Google’s director of communications, said that he’d look into it and get back to Brandt — but that was in March, and Brandt hasn’t heard anything since.
It’s hard to get too upset about search privacy at Google when, all over the Web, other sites are increasingly playing fast and loose with private data. Google isn’t alone in setting long cookies or saving search terms, says Sullivan. “Other search engines keep that kind of information, but people tend to want to focus on Google because it’s so popular — and they almost unfairly separate it out from the group.”
Sullivan notes that, unlike other search services, Google isn’t a “portal site,” so it doesn’t register users in order to offer them auxiliary services (like e-mail). Therefore, Google has no way of tying a search term with a specific person — only with a specific computer — which, from a privacy standpoint, poses less of a concern. Yahoo, which requires sign-in for portal services, has already announced a plan to e-mail ads to people based on what they’ve searched for. (The plan, called Yahoo Impulse Mail, is “opt-in.”) If you wanted to be a watchdog for the privacy of search, wouldn’t you start by attacking that program?
And Brandt concedes that, in truth, the thing he hates most about Google is not its cookie, but its ranking policy. PageRank is his Enemy No. 1.
PageRank, according to people who consider themselves experts on Google, is what makes the site as good as it is. Developed by Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, while they were students at Stanford, the system is credited with revolutionizing the search world. In the old days, search engines just served up results in whatever order they pleased; the engines didn’t treat some sites as more “important” than others.
The idea of site importance was Google’s singular inspiration. According to the company, this is how PageRank works: “Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves ‘important’ weigh more heavily and help to make other pages ‘important.’”
For a while, there was no way to see how “important” Google thought your site was. But a couple of years ago Google released the Google Toolbar, which has a small green meter that tells you the rank of every page you visit. Although it doesn’t give a very precise measure of page rank (You can’t tell, for example, whether Google is partial to the New York Times or the Washington Post, as they both appear to have the same rank) the toolbar does give a crude idea of page rank, providing a way to tell the very important pages from the very unimportant.
Google’s PageRank meter got a lot of webmasters focused on their own rank. It was the toolbar that clued Brandt in to the fact that Google didn’t like him very much.
When you type “NameBase” into Google, Brandt’s site comes up first, but Brandt is not satisfied with that. “My problem has been to get Google to go deep enough into my site,” he says. In other words, Brandt wants Google to index the 100,000 names he has in his database, so that a Google search for “Donald Rumsfeld” will bring up NameBase’s page for the secretary of defense.
For some reason, though, all of NameBase’s deep pages — its pages with specific names and citations — have a low Google page rank, which causes them to show up low in the search results. Search for “Donald Rumsfeld” in Google and in the first five pages you get a lot of .mil and .gov sites, some news stories, and some activist sites. Namebase’s entry on Rumsfeld doesn’t come up. (It is in Google’s database, but to find it somebody would have to first wade through hundreds of results.)
Brandt sees this as Google’s major flaw. “I’m not saying there aren’t some sites that are more important that others, but in Google the sites that do well are the spammy sites, sites which have Google psyched out, and a lot of big sites, corporate headquarters’ sites — they show up before sites that criticize those companies.”
In other words, Brandt recognizes that there has to be some order to Google’s results, and that some sites might deserve to come up before others. He just disagrees with the way Google does it. In Brandt’s ideal world, if you searched for “United Airlines,” you would see untied.com — a site critical of United — before you see United’s page. And if you searched for Rumsfeld, you’d see NameBase’s dossier on him before the Defense Department’s site on the “The Honorable Donald Rumsfeld.”
Brandt would prefer that Google look more at the content of a page than the links to it. As a matter of personal philosophy, he thinks that judging a site based on links is unfair. “It’s democratic in the same way that capitalism is democratic,” Brandt says. “You could have the cure for cancer on the Web and not find it in Google because ‘important’ sites don’t link to it.”
“We feel that PageRank has run its course. Google doesn’t have to abandon it entirely, but they should de-emphasize it. The first step is to stop reporting PageRank on the toolbar. This would mute the awareness of PageRank among optimizers and webmasters, and remove some of the bizarre effects that such awareness has engendered. The next step would be to replace all mention of PageRank in their own public relations documentation, in favor of general phrases about how link popularity is one factor among many in their ranking algorithms. And Google should adjust the balance between their various algorithms so that excellent on-page characteristics are not completely cancelled by low link popularity.”
Now, asking Google to get rid of PageRank because it ruined searching is akin to asking the PGA to get rid of Tiger Woods because he ruined golf — it’s about the most outlandish thing you can ask for, and Brandt seems to know that. But he says if people think that Google works well for them, they should ask: “Compared to what?” Google may be better than other search engines out there, but is it as good as a search engine can be?
Google’s Tyler defended PageRank. “Page rank is an unbiased measure of the value of pages on the Web — it’s fundamentally a measure of where a random surfer is likely to end up,” he said. “Sites with merit and/or importance are likely to attract more links and surfers. In response to the claim that commercial sites will dominate the PageRank system, it’s easy to find noncommercial sites that enjoy great page rank simply because many people believe a site is important.”
But he added that Brandt’s view that PageRank is the most important part of Google’s algorithm is off the mark. “It’s also important to emphasize that page rank is only one of more than one hundred different factors we use to determine the relevancy of a page for a search query,” he said.
This is a point many people don’t seem to get. Danny Sullivan, of Search Engine Watch, says webmasters and search engine optimizers tend overemphasize the importance of PageRank, and in the process “greatly oversimplify how Google ranks its pages.” To determine rank order, Google looks at more than just links from “important” sites — it looks at the context of those links, the link text, and dozens of other characteristics. The tech press, early on, looked for a reason why Google was so good, and Google told them about PageRank. It was a good story and it caught on. But the truth is that Google’s ranking formula is a very closely guarded secret, and it goes well beyond PageRank.
Bob Massa, a search engine optimizer who runs SearchKing, seems to know that Google is more than PageRank, but he also knows that many people put a value on that little green bar in the toolbar. And so he’s “selling” higher PageRank scores.
His method is simple. He has a collection of sites on specific subjects — like maps.searchking.com and health.searchking.com — and he prices ads on those sites according to their PageRank scores. An ad on a site of his that has a score of 5 costs $19 per month; a score of 8 is $99 a month.
Why would somebody pay $69 a month for an ad on maps.searchking.com, a PageRank 7 site? Because they think they know how Google works: If you get a link from an important site, your own site becomes more important. You don’t pay the $69 for the clicks you might get from all the visitors to maps.searchking.com — you pay it to get a higher rank in Google.
In an interview, Massa didn’t come right out and say he is trying to sell higher rankings in Google. “I’m just saying that sites with high page rank have a huge perception of value, and if you want to pay more for that I’m not going to talk you out of it,” he said. “When they put it on the toolbar and made it public, they must have known it’s going to become a currency.”
He is less subtle on his site: “Having a thousand links from sites that are performing poorly does no good! Let me say that again, ‘HAVING A THOUSAND LINKS FROM POORLY PERFORMING SITES DOES NO GOOD!’ In fact that can hurt you more than help. SearchKing can provide you with a quality traffic through your text ad and give you quality links.”
When Salon called him, Massa said he was “busy as a one-eyed dog in a sausage factory.” He couldn’t keep up with orders for his PageRank ads — and he hopes that Google won’t interfere with that business. If the company asked him to stop using the word “PageRank” in his promotional material, he wouldn’t mind doing that. “But if behind my back they would do something to hurt my portal sites,” like, for example, remove them from the index, “then the whole Internet needs to start fearing them,” he said.
Google’s Nathan Tyler said: “We encourage webmasters to use common sense when considering any commercial offering that purports to increase page rank. We also encourage webmasters to steer clear of ‘free-for-all’ link programs, link farms, and any attempt to mimic PageRank. In addition, it’s inevitable that high-quality pages which sell links from their site will inevitably diminish their own value/page rank.”
Sullivan, of Search Engine Watch, says that Massa’s is the first program he’s seen that has been so “brazen about selling page rank” — and he doesn’t think it’s going to work, especially since Google knows about the program.
Brandt, though, is convinced that Google relies too much on PageRank, which he calls Google’s “original sin.” He wants Massa’s ads to succeed, because he thinks that such a scheme will subvert PageRank, and Google will have to abandon it in favor of other ranking techniques.
“I don’t have much pull with Google,” he says, not at all discouraged by that fact. “But I really think the days of PageRank are numbered.”
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)