How Google flushes knowledge down the toilet

Search engine optimization is filling the Internet with misinformation about human bathroom habits and more

Topics: Google, information, Internet, search engines, Editor's Picks, , ,

How Google flushes knowledge down the toilet (Credit: kledge via iStock)

Quick – how much time will the average human spend on the toilet over the course of his/her life?

If you’ve never thought about this, maybe you just calculated a rough estimate – say, 10 minutes a day, which would give you something in the ballpark of 200 days over 80 years.

If you did what people generally do when they want to know something, you searched Google immediately and found an answer on the first link that came up. If you did neither, go ahead and Google it now. The article can wait.

On Google, you probably found the answer to be a number of years, most likely three. That’s about 45 minutes a day – much higher than you’d probably estimate.

So who exactly is on the john for 45 minutes every day? Probably very few people, but you wouldn’t know that from searching Google. The Internet isn’t a resource for all knowledge, no matter how much we like to think it is – and yet we increasingly rely on it to be just that.

* * *

In 2011, Harvard University released a study showing the constant presence of the Internet has essentially rewired our brains. It suggests that when we need to know something, rather than trying to work that information out based on our existing knowledge, we think immediately of how we can find it online: “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”

Readily available Web searches are ingrained into our first-world culture and education. For me, this began in grade school in the late ’90s – I started using AskJeeves.com to do my homework instead of reading my textbooks, and never looked back. As a freelance copywriter and ghost blogger, not much has changed.

Recently one of my clients had me research “shit facts” for an info-graphic we were putting together for a septic company. I’d heard we spend some number of years over the course of our lives on toilets, so I Googled it. As I do with most of my research, I looked over the first search response, found what seemed like a believable answer, and moved on.



As I continued my “shit” research, however, I started noticing conflicting data. WikiAnswers.com, for instance, answers the question on separate threads as three years (here) and one to four years (here) and offers another page (here) stating we spend 15 minutes/day using “facilities” (which I had to calculate out to the lifetime figure of ~300 days). There’s also this guy’s blog (“The average person spends Three years of their life on the toilet. That is a FACT.”), OMG-Facts.com (1.5 years, based on a Scottish newspaper’s miscalculated figures), KGBAnswers.com and this blog (both one to four years), FunTrivia.com (three years and one year) — and presumably many more.

And so it was that the next day – and some leftover lentils later – I employed myself as a research participant. Using my single sampling of data, I came up with a total well under a year. While I have no large-scale survey data to back this claim, I’d say three years seems wildly unrealistic.

* * *

What makes this so problematic is the way search engines work. Google doesn’t inherently “know” what a search query is; it uses an algorithm to link the characters you typed to the websites people actually spent time on after searching for similar terms.

Internet marketers have exploited this into an industry called search engine optimization, the fundamental point of which is to link businesses to search queries that are pertinent to those businesses’ Web pages (for example, BestBuy.com and Amazon.com come up when searching “best laptops”).

This all reaches beyond just Google search rankings. SEO/content management supergiant HubSpot reported that as of April 2013 it had already seen a 9 percent increase in blogging/social media investment from 2012. If you monetize your website in some way, it’s advantageous to populate your site and social pages with loads of content that’s relevant to your market, then advertise it. Thanks to the digital ad industry – netting over $104 billion in 2012 (Emarketer) – and the affiliate marketing industry – projected to net $4 billion by 2014 (Forrester Research) – website owners can make more money from their websites and social media pages the more people visit them, even if they’re not directly selling anything (nearly all the sites I found data on have sponsored ads).

Websites with their own goods and services to sell bring in writers like me to churn out Web content and social posts based on what their visitors are probably interested in (for example, “shit facts” for a septic company) to keep traffic flowing, which then increases their online visibility. If a retail-oriented website runs a blog and social media page, there’s a good chance they only care about those platforms to the extent that they get people to buy their stuff.

Thus we find writers frantically writing posts, blogs, press releases and website content and gathering data on industries they know nothing about through brief Google searches (which we almost never cite). That information then begins populating the search results of Google, Bing and other search engines, making it seem more reliable as it spreads further.

Couple all this with sites like ChaCha, where “experts” are paid to provide answers, and you have an entire information-sharing sub-industry revolving around rapid propagation rather than quality. It doesn’t matter if you’re right, it matters that you got people to visit a page, and if something looks true, that’s probably good enough for the visitor. Last June, Farhad Manjoo reported on Slate.com that most Internet users only scroll about halfway through a Web page before leaving it – we find what we need and move on, likely never questioning what little we just skimmed over.

* * *

The real answer to the question that started all this is that it may be impossible to answer such a question. There are too many variables for this activity that gets no official, tested measurement, too many idiosyncrasies and cultural diets and populations without toilet access.

But this is about more than just poop habits. In my example, we have something people can easily provide their own estimate of, and yet few seem inclined to apply even that minute amount of thought. The informational ease of access that Google and the Internet provide have made information into something like a cheap commodity. Remember when teachers started worrying about students citing Wikipedia in essays? Now we have a flood of even less-moderated information that gets recycled by people and websites until it becomes ubiquitous. Like an infinite digital toilet, the Internet is playing host to its own form of redigested waste.

As much as those problems seem to stem from companies who want to boost their brands and don’t care if they use misinformation to do it, we information-seekers have to take responsibility too. We have to learn to be accountable for the knowledge we obtain – which now, more than ever, is a knowledge of choice – and where we choose to obtain it from.

We’re used to getting the data we want when we want it, so now not knowing something makes us uneasy. We want our lives to be contextualized, to comprise the measurable, the quantifiable; we want facts to dispel that moment of unease; we want figures we can compare to our own habits and actions and assure ourselves we really are normal. And all that’s very normal too – we just need to learn to recognize the shit.

Bryce is a freelance writer and editor in New Mexico; his poetry, essays and fiction can be found widely online and in print. He writes regularly for Matador Network and his advertising blog, advertventures: http://advertventures.wordpress.com/.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...