Trust Me, I'm A Search Engine by Kaila Colbin , Friday, August 15, 2008
OUR LIVES AS WE KNOW them could not exist without trust. We trust that our employers will pay us when promised. We trust that the electric company will continue to provide power to our homes. We trust that our money will be available for withdrawal from the bank, whenever we want it.
The bedrock of our media -- and its most precious asset -- is our ability to trust in its accuracy. The most compelling online success stories are those that have a built-in trust mechanism, helping individuals separate the wheat from the chaff. Feedback Scores. Word IQ. Number of Diggs.
And, of course, PageRank. Google arrived at the forefront of our Internet experience on the coattails of trust. Trust provides a necessary shortcut for behavioral decisions, and it is fundamental to our human evolution. If it weren't, we would have given up on it long ago, given how frequently trust gets abused or compromised (CGI fireworks, anyone?).
In the excellent book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" (thanks to my Search Insider colleague Gord Hotchkiss for the recommendation), Robert Cialdini shows how trust is a biological imperative on many levels.
Take for example the principle of reciprocity: I do something for you, and you feel an overwhelming need to do something for me. This principle allows me to trust that we can enter into mutual agreements, which in turn allows for specialization. If I didn't trust that a farmer would grow my food, I wouldn't be able to spend my days worrying about things like Facebook and Twitter.
Or consider the concept of social proof, where we look to others as a guide for how to behave. In its most disturbing incarnation, social proof can turn into pluralistic ignorance, where cries for help go ignored while passersby wait for someone else to make the first move. But in its positive form, social proof fuels a cohesive society. It is what allows markets to grow beyond the early adopters. It is what drives populist movements, for good or for bad.
At its core, PageRank is built on social proof. Google looks to see whether other people think this page is important before deciding how important it is. The fact that there are lots of links back to this page proves its worth and earns your trust.
We all know that you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. But Google lives in a sort of trust utopia. Its users believe the system will find the most credible information available, but don't hold the search engine accountable if the information is inaccurate or just plain false.
The ecosystem that has evolved around the search giant piggybacks on that trust. Yes, people click on the top ten results because they're too lazy to search further, but I would bet that we also experience a placebo trust effect, perceiving the links on the first page to be more trustworthy.
As Cialdini points out more than once, behavioral shortcuts -- like trust -- are valuable. They allow us to rely on external cues to quickly navigate oceans of data. So it would be a mistake to discard them wholesale. But it's equally important to be aware of them and to be cognizant of their influence, so that we might know when our trust is a useful tool and when it might lead us astray. As Finley Peter Dunne said, "Trust everybody, but cut the cards."
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