Googling Barbie Again

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My writer’s block has writer’s block. Still, I don’t want this place to be abandoned completely so I’m going to revisit an oldie but goodie: what do you see when you google barbie?

Yochai Benkler made a big deal of the Google search results for Barbie in his book The Wealth of Networks (2006), where he claimed that, whereas other search engines gave you only sales-related Barbie sites in the top ten, Google’s “radically decentralized” algorithm revealed an entirely different picture of Barbie. “The little girl who searches for Barbie on Google will encounter a culturally contested figure. The same girl, searching on Overture, will encounter a commodity toy”.

But that was in 2006. Since then things have changed in the google-sphere. I posted about this 18 months ago in Barbie slinks back to the confines of feminist-criticism symposia. Here were the Google first page results from 2006 as reported by Benkler:

barbie.com
Barbie Collecter
AdiosBarbie.com
Barbie Bazaar
If You Were a Barbie, Which Messed Up Version would you be?
Visible Barbie project (macabre images…)
Barbie: The Image of us all (1995 undergraduate paper)
Andigraph.free.fre (Barbie and Ken sex animation)
Suicide bomber Barbie
Barbies (dressed and painted as countercultural images)

and here were the results in January 2008:

Barbie.com – Activities and Games for Girls Online! (together with eight other links to My Scene, Evertythingggirl, Polly Pocket, Kellyclub, and so on).
Barbie.co.uk – Activities and Games for Girls Online!
Barbie – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Barbie Collector -     (The official Mattel site for Barbie Collector)
Barbie Girls
Mattel – Our Toys – Barbie
The Distorted Barbie
YouTube – barbie girl – aqua
Barbie – Barbie Dress up – Fashion for Barbie
Barbie.ca

and I concluded that “this search is basically owned by Mattel. Clicking the top link takes you to a pink page with “Think Pink” written in the middle of it, and the majority of the sites feature pink prominently. No more defining the cultural symbols of our day for you, nine-year-old girl! Quit the self-aware political discourse and get back to dressing that doll in gender-appropriate colours (as selected for you by Mattel).”

Every now and again I google barbie and see what’s changed as the Google search engine becomes more elaborate. So here are today’s results (from southern Ontario).

Barbie.com – Activities and Games for Girls Online! (together with eight other links to My Scene, Evertythingggirl, Polly Pocket, Kellyclub, and so on).
Barbie.com – Fun and Games
Barbie – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
News results for barbie (with several other links)
Barbie Collector -     (The official Mattel site for Barbie Collector)
Barbie.co.uk – Activities and Games for Girls Online!
Barbie.ca
Barbie Girls – and a sublink
Celebrate 50 Years of Barbie
Video results for barbie – with two links to Aqua’s Barbie Girl video
Searches related to barbie – all strictly orthodox except for one about Taiwanese actress and singer Barbie Xu.

Yes, the little girl who searches for Barbie on Google will now encounter a commodity toy.

The one big change in the last 18 months is that the remaining countercultural site from 2008 has now been pushed over the edge to page 2 of the search results, displaced by two Google-owned collections of links (News and Videos). I’m sure you’ve seen this in your own searches. Google presents more links on and around the “top ten” results, in “related searches”, and in collections of video, news, and image links. One effect of this change is that Google now often gets one more click from you before you leave their domain. Google is extending its role from pointing you vaguely towards your destination to guiding you more precisely, and more profitably, all the way along the path.

Of the other top-level links, seven are owned by Mattel (Two to barbie.com, Barbie collector, Barbie Girls, barbie.co.uk, barbie.ca, Celebrate 50 years of Barbie) and the remaining link is to Wikipedia, now the only non-commercial site on the front page. Following Nick Carr’s informal experiment we may have expected Wikipedia to move even higher in the results, but it has just held its place.

Independent sites are out there in their millions of course, but they are unfortunately being pushed to the periphery of our field of vision by commercial efforts – of Mattel in this case. It should be no surprise that as the web has become mainstream, and as corporations realise the necessity of investing in their web presence, the web begins to look more like other mainstream media. Perhaps more evidence that the Web’s counter-cultural moment is over.

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7 Comments

  1. It’s good to see your writer’s block unblocking even just a little bit. Curse that Jeff Atwood who led me to your blog! I’m now a Whimsley junkie regularly desperate for a fix.
    Wouldn’t it be good if we could do a really intelligent Google search like “Barbie but nothing from Mattel” ?

  2. Cheers David.
    You can do something like that although it’s a pain. [barbie site:barbie.com] searches within the site, and [barbie -site:barbie.com] excludes barbie.com from the search results. So the following search does something like what you want (and gets a far more interesting result).
    [barbie -site:barbie.com -site:everythinggirl.com -site:barbiecollector.com -site:barbie.ca -site:barbie.co.uk -site:barbiegirls.com -site:barbiemedia.com]

  3. Well, yes, but that requires a heap of prior knowledge about what sites to exclude.
    Perhaps this shows the (still remaining) superiority of human intelligence. You know exactly what I mean if I say I want to find Barbie sites outside the Mattel corporate universe, but getting a computer system to do the same thing is an extremely difficult problem.

  4. You are right of course – not very useful in practice.
    By the way, your AAC-modifying software looks very interesting. I spend more iPod time with books than music, and the lack of chapter stops is a pain. Would it work with audible.com books?

  5. No, sorry, the Audible format is proprietary and secret and I can’t do anything with such files while they remain in that format. Don’t you just love DRM?
    But you can use MarkAble to create your own iPod audio books from various other sources, and insert chapter stops. Some good sources of non-Audible books are Books on Board (http://www.booksonboard.com), AudioBooksForFree (http://audiobooksforfree.com), TellTale Weekly (http://www.alexwilson.com/telltale/), and many others.

  6. 1) I wonder why “Barbie.com – Fun and Games” was not aggregated as a category under the main Barbie.com site.
    2) The country specific Barbie.co.uk and Barbie.ca could be categorized under the main site too I think, maybe with flag icons. I wonder if Google has tested and rejected that or perhaps they don’t have logic in place to correlate country/language specific sites.
    3) YouTube.com was in the 2008 Top 10 so the “Video Results for…” link doesn’t bother me but “News Results for…” does. I don’t think News Results are appropriate for this specific search.
    4) I’m not sure if the “gender appropriate colours” where chosen by Mattel for 9-year-old girls or if the 9-year-old girls chose the gender appropriate colours for Mattel. I looked in a Toys R Us for a hard to find “Barbie Princess Castle” around Christmas several years ago and was shocked when I was led down the “princess aisle”. A whole aisle dedicated to all things princess related. Who knew.
    5) My home page in Internet Explorer is set to Google.com. I rarely use IE but when I need to use it I am now greeted with an Ad to switch to Google Chrome. I wonder if pushing their own properties will diminish their reputation.

  7. Pingback: Visions of Barbie | ROUGH TYPE

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