Our Own Private Idahos

I once had a client — let’s call her Mary — who’d built a business on a domain that had a good Google ranking. One day Mary called sounding distressed. The site’s traffic was not growing anymore — in fact, it was going down. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, “we’re still the number one result in Google for our keywords.” I checked. “No, you’re not,” I replied, “I see you way down the list.” We started comparing notes, and that’s when we realized Google was serving us different results for the same keywords.

I didn’t know what to recommend. I knew SEO was important, but​ it wasn’t the focus of my work. Still, I had a basic understanding of Google’s ranking algorithm: Roughly, it gave greater prominence to older pages that had lots of other pages pointing to it. This meant there were things you could do to the site — clarify language, structure HTML in particular ways — that could help. It also meant everyone saw the same results: if you googled something and I googled the same thing, we’d both see the same list of results ranked in the same order.

But now this had changed. The algorithm had become more complex, taking into consideration other factors. I didn’t know what they were, but it seemed clear Mary’s results were very different from mine. This place we had both referred to — the first page of Google results for keyword x — no longer existed; now there was Mary’s results page and Jorge’s results page, and the two were different.

The upside to dynamically generated environments such as this is that they make it easier for us to find the stuff we — individually — are looking for. Google’s results have been getting better over time; I usually find what I’m looking for faster. But there’s a downside too: if everyone sees a different version of the environment, how can we come to a shared understanding of what we’re looking at? How can we have a dialog when standing in different contexts? What is our common frame of reference?

For example, the algorithm that powers Facebook’s news feed generates a unique instance of that place every time you visit. It’d be meaningless for you to say to me, “Check this out, you’ll see it in your Facebook news feed!”; there’s nowhere for you to point to because the place you’re pointing to is completely ephemeral. And if you and I are chatting on​ Facebook, you may be seeing completely different things around the chat window than I am. Maybe these things are irritating or inciting me, and that’s affecting the tone (if not the content) of my messages.

Context is a very important factor on how we understand things. A conversation between two people during a wake will have a very different meaning than one during a circus performance, even if the same words are uttered. Effective dialog requires contextual stability, and we’re moving to a world where the spaces we converse in are in constant flux. Those of us who design these places are called to make them effective conduits for understanding, and this requires that we think about the contexts they create — shared and otherwise.