One of the unexpected pleasures of handling the administrative functions for this blog has been the opportunity to look at daily reports on how people find us on the Internet. Many still find the blog by typing in the address, or by subscribing to an e-mail feed, or by using a feed reader like Google Reader. However, as the posts and comments on the blog have increased, so has the traffic generated by search engines. I was reminded of this on Oct. 29, when someone found Reasonable Minds by searching for “amateur love monkeys.”
Yes, that’s “amateur love monkeys.” Well, of course I checked, and if you were searching for this phrase on Oct. 29, 2007, we were result # 12 on Google. I guess it’s really true that reasonable minds “do more than differ.”
That wasn’t the first time I noticed a surprising search engine result. The first time was back in February 2007, when I noticed that someone found our blog by searching for “moral obligations.” Good heavens, a topic that big and a blog this small? Yet I had just posted a piece about a mining documentary, and there had been some ensuing discussion about environmentalism and the moral obligations that rich nations owe to poor ones. That relatively meager amount of discussion was enough to put us among the top results on the web for “moral obligations,” which perhaps speaks volumes about what people do and do not use the Internet to discuss.
I have come to take some pride in the search phrases that lead people here: “gospel reflections,” “citizenship duties,” “laws national identity united states,” and even “limericks to recite.” The January post on moral obligations may have receded in significance, but this very day we are # 4 if you search “Reagan conservatism moral.”
Sometimes, though, it is surprising how far down we rank, even with seemingly unlikely search terms. For example, Mark Ouweleen’s Tropaia speech, which we featured last May, referred to Hitler, Jesus, and movies about cowboys and Indians. Wouldn’t you guess that “hitler jesus movie” would point right to that post? But no; the top result for that search is this trailer for a “Hitler & Jesus Buddy Comedy” called “Second Coming.” One has to search for “hitler jesus cowboy movie” before Mark’s speech pops out at #4. I only got it to #1 by searching “hitler jesus cotton mather movie.” The irony, of course, is that if anyone were looking for a movie about Hitler, Jesus, and Cotton Mather, he wouldn’t find it here. What he would find is a great speech that would bid fair to make him wiser if he read it.
That thought inspires in me the hopeful suggestion that perhaps these seemingly random Acts of Google might substitute at least partially for the serendipity that used to be involved in picking up your local newspaper and reading what everyone else was talking about. Unfortunately, that’s not true either; these search engine results can be gamed using an art known as “search engine optimization,” or SEO for short. There are consultants who specialize in SEO (forgive me for stating the obvious), and I know of at least one Big Media organization that has admitted that it makes a conscious effort to use SEO to send its articles to the top of the Dogpile, so to speak. I suspect that newspaper is not alone, particularly among media organizations. What else can explain the fact that after criticizing the “Free Flow of Information Act” in four or five different posts and comments, significantly past the point at which it became tiresome, this blog is way down at #54 in a Google search for that phrase?
This should perhaps temper some popular zeal for the democratizing influence of the blogosphere. Yes, the Internet yields unexpected results; no, they are not the product of serendipity. They are the product of human intention, specifically, the human intention to make oneself heard, even to the exclusion of others.
By the way, in a few days I fully expect this blog to be the #1 result for searches on the free flow of hitler love monkeys in cowboy movies at Tropaia. New York Times, eat your heart out.