Disagreeing with a Scientist

Photo thanks to Lorelei Ranveig.

Web.com president Dr. Jeff Stibel is one of the inventors of search engine interfaces and has a paragraph of titles after his name.  In a recent blog post and Harvard Business Review Podcast he claims that the brain is a reasonable model for understanding the internet.

I disagree.

Dr. Stible argues that the internet is a brain, and Google is its memory. In the brain the most powerful thoughts are formed by connections of billions of synapses, and these memories are the most likely ones to come up in daily thought.

Others are accessed by sending “thought queries” to the brain, bringing up memories we though we had forgotten.  Of those, only the top few receive attention.  The rest are ignored.

A similar system exists online. The more pages that link to a website, the more important that website is and the more often it is “remembered” (shows up on search results).  But the more specific the query, the more less-important sites will become more relevant.

This analogy is good for conceptualizing. Links=synapses, websites=neurons, internet=brain, etc. In fact it’s a pretty accurate model for the construction of the internet.

But the model falls apart when you realize that it takes more to be “remembered” on the internet than the intrinsic quality of the memory itself. Stibel’s advice to small business owners (from his blog):

So what should you do? Follow the brain.

Stop trying to game Google and focus on building value. Improve the quality of your site, remove the clutter and focus on attracting relevant sites to link to your site. And if you are looking for a good model, look no further than Google’s website: uncluttered, massive links in to the site, and a nice big button for sending your information on.

A real memory’s worth is the intrinsic value of the memory. But a website, although it may be beneficial and relevant, must be configured in such a way as to allow the memory engine (Google) to remember it.

In practice, “gaming” Google is just as important as providing value. The fundamental difference between the brain and the internet is that online memories (sites) must to be configured correctly to be remembered (ranked well). It’s not enough for a site to simply be valuable.

And you have control of exactly how your site will be remembered. With real memories you don’t. Online you can pick and choose which thoughts (searches) you want to show up for, then configure your online “memory” to do just that.

The brain does not have all of those factors to consider, and that’s why Dr. Stible’s model should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s a good theory, but in practice “gaming” Google means configuring your site to be found easily by the online memory engine.

The practical ability to configure individual memories clashes with Dr. Stible’s model of the internet as a brain, and perhaps that is the reason he advises against it.

In the end, the internet is not a brain. Making decisions based on an incomplete external model overlooks the realities within the concrete system, and can end up hampering your online marketing efforts.