Mr. Google’s Guidebook

Whimsley Hall is now strewn, like Miss Haversham’s house, with cobwebs and dust. Most visitors no longer come in by the front door to take a tour. Instead, Mr. Google (a travel agent who doubles as our butler) directs them straight down to the basement where the family archives are kept and tells them to look at one particular historical document called The Netflix Prize: 300 Days Later. They  read this and then they walk right out.

I shouldn’t complain. It’s nice that they visit at all – much better than rattling around here by myself – so I should be very grateful to Mr. Google for bringing these people to visit, but it does leave me wondering why he always sends them to look at this same corner of the house. I have a few other items lying around that I think are just as pretty but Mr. Google takes the visitors right by them without so much as a glance.

So when he brought me the sherry decanter the other day I challenged him on it. I thought it was an innocent enough question to ask of one’s butler. Little did I realize the terrifying journey I was embarking on with that one question. He explained that when you ask him a question he understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” That sounded a little presumptuous so I asked him how he could be so confident in his understanding and he replied, rather stiffly if you ask me, “If I did not give you exactly what you wanted then you wouldn’t have asked me in the first place would you?” There was something about the slow, pronounced way he articulated this that made me feel like Wooster to his Jeeves so I didn’t pursue the topic, fearing he would get upset. I wouldn’t want him to leave; it’s so hard to find good help nowadays.

As I sipped my sherry I realized that I don’t really understand the man. For a butler and travel agent he seems remarkably well-to-do, and yet when I ask why he works so hard (I happen to know he is butler at several other houses in the county as well as mine) he insists he is only interested in helping people and points to his family motto, which he keeps on a little card that he brandishes frequently. “Don’t be evil“, it says.

Still, after a few glasses I still felt a little bolshie over Mr. Google’s tone and I remembered that some months previous he had actually given me a copy of his biography (he is a most talented individual, I grant). He had told me it was an authorized volume with interviews and selections of his personal correspondence. I hadn’t paid much attention to it at the time, but now I took a candle, wandered over to the west wing of Whimsley Hall, and climbed the stone staircase to the very top, where the library is. There I found the biography already lying on a table by the window, which was strange because I had never taken it off the shelf before, and as I sat down to read I realized that it does indeed tell me all about our Mr Google.

Was I surprised! The biography was a revelation. I don’t get out often these days (it’s the gout) and I am now woefully out of touch, but it turns out that there is more to Mr. Google than I ever dreamed. He is responsible for an astonishingly popular free publication called Mr. Google’s Guidebook. It’s one of the most remarkable books you’ll ever read – if you open it twice you never see quite the same page. In fact the only book I’ve ever heard of to match it is a limited edition print called “The Book of Sand” that my friend Mr. Borges had in his library before he went mad.

Here is how Mr. Google’s Guidebook works.

A long time ago, people used signposts to get where they wanted to go. Each signpost was a little underlined phrase in blue that took you to a new place. People would wander all over the place, hopping from one place to another, looking at signposts to see where to go next. These signposts made a sort of map. The complete map of the world is a very big and complicated thing of course, but here is a little piece of it (thanks to this article).

Mr. Google realized that most people don’t really want maps, they want guidebooks. And he also realized how he could use those signposts to build a good guidebook. When someone puts up a signpost it shows that they feel this destination is a place worth going to. Mr. Google’s Guidebook is very well indexed, so when you look up something like “I would like to visit a peaceful country retreat” it takes you to a page of recommendations. To generate these recommendations Mr. Google counted all the signposts that pointed to peaceful country retreats and pick those retreats that most signposts pointed to. “Here”, he would say, “I recommend you go to Harburn House, or Green Mountain Bed and Breakfast”. Mr. Google’s Guidebook became something of a sensation. Once it was established, he put in a few advertisements alongside each question and made a pretty penny from it.

As I read further, a storm rose up in the west. The candle flickered as the wind came in through the ill-fitting windows. Maybe this forbidding atmosphere explains why the more I read the more I worried that there might be something a little sinister about our Mr. Google. Mr. Google’s Guidebook has become very influential. In fact, I understand he now has a cave somewhere in view of the mountains that is full of large and noisy engines, with powerful pistons cranking away to produce new versions every day. That initial guide of his, so clean and tidy, has become a monstrous device like one of those machines designed by Mr. Goldberg or Mr. Robinson. He claims that every edition of his guide “considers more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms“.

It was late at night by the time I read this remarkable fact, and I’d had several more glasses of sherry. A particularly strong gust rattled the window and I stood up to close the shutters. The wind blew the window open and I had to reach out to grab it. It was then that I noticed in the distance a flash of flame and a column of thick black smoke rising in the distance from right near Mr. Google’s cave! It looked positively diabolical. I believe I actually cried out in shock.

After a tussle I got the shutters closed and, shaken, returned to my leatherbound armchair and took another sip to calm my nerves. My mind was racing. “Come on Whimsley”, I thought, “You’re just imagining things”. How could there be anything sinister about the Guidebook? I opened a page of the biography at random and it set my mind somewhat at ease. Here is what I read:

At some universities, administrators are taking a new approach to deciding where to put footpaths. At first they don’t put footpaths anywhere; they just let students walk across the grass to get where they need to go, wearing away the grass and creating rough tracks as they do so. Then when it is clear where the popular tracks go the university can just tidy them up, put down some paving stones, and they have a path in the right place.
It’s called the Wisdom of Crowds. The students decide where the paths go by just going about their everyday life, and the university taps into their preferences to design an environment that reflects exactly what the students would want to do.
That’s what we’ve done here at Mr. Google’s Guidebook. We track how people walk around, which signposts they follow, and that lets us put paths in the right place, just where you want them to be. We can lead you just where you want to go; lead you to interesting and even unexpected destinations that will provide you with just what you asked for, and more.

Maybe that’s all it is then, I thought. Maybe everyone wants to read about the Netflix Prize and no one wants to read 25 essays about the Long Tail. Maybe I’ve had one moment of startling insight amidst so much dross. But somehow, as my mood plumbed new depths, my brain clung to a stubborn belief that the prettiest thing in Whimsley Hall is an ancient manuscript that sets out, with wit and panache, the problems with toilets. This gem lies in a corner covered with grime and neglected by Mr. Google. How could I possibly explain such gross inequity? Pondering this problem, I fell asleep in the chair and drifted into a strange dream…

I was standing with my mother in York; one of many visits some years ago. She was pointing to a Chinese take-away restaurant that occupied one narrow division of a long terrace of houses and shops on one of the old streets of that city.
– Look at that, she said, Why is that restaurant right where it is? Why does it go from here to here (gesturing to the edges of the restaurant) rather than some other place?
– I have no idea.
– It’s because of the vikings. Over a thousand years ago the land was divided, and then subdivided as it was passed down from father to sons. Each son inherited a narrower strip, so that it had access to the road, and as a result property lines were narrow. Over the years new buildings have been erected until the current use of land has nothing to do with the original, and yet the boundaries remain; archaic, obsolete, and yet fixed. Unless a new motorway comes through they may stay the same way for another thousand years.
– How strange, I commented.
– Not as strange as the egg rolls, she replied…
Then I was in a train, reading a newspaper article about Alfred Wainwright‘s classic hand-written guides to the paths of the Lake District. It explained that, while the routes of footpaths usually evolved over time rendering such guides as Wainwright’s obsolete, the very success of Mr. Wainwright’s magnificent effort had preserved their relevance. People used the guides to follow the paths, cementing the routes in place for much longer than would have been the case without them.

I awoke with a start. What an odd thing to remember. Why now? My mother is in fine fettle – no worries there. And Wainwright’s Guides? I hadn’t thought of them in years. It must be something else that produced that dream. And then I realized, it was all about Mr. Google’s Guidebook. I struck my forehead, blinded by this insight, and rushed to the table. Picking up the quill pen, I dipped it in the ink and began to write feverishly on the pad of paper lying there…

Mr. Google is lying! (I wrote) His Guidebook no longer reflects the paths set out by travellers as they navigate their lives. It is no longer an outside observer of people’s wanderings. Google’s success has changed the way people find their routes. Here is the way it happens. When a new cluster of destinations is built there may be a flurry of interest, with new signposts being erected pointing towards one or another of those competing locations. And those signposts have their own dynamics, perhaps forming a power law as set out by Mr. Shirky or perhaps something different, as Mr. Shalizi has explained. But that’s not the end of the story. After some initial burst, no one makes new signposts to this cluster of destinations any more. And no one uses the old signposts to select which particular destination to visit. Instead everyone uses Mr. Google’s Guidebook. It becomes the major determinant of the way people travel; no longer a guide to an existing geography it now shapes the geography itself, becoming the most powerful force of all in many parts of the land.

So my Netflix Prize essay got selected by Mr. Google’s machines as one of the more interesting and insightful commentaries – the machines are perceptive, we must grant them that – and it soon appeared as number 3 on the list of recommended destinations for anyone looking for “Netflix Prize“, right after the official site itself. And now no one is guided here by those few original links – the relevance of their effect is as vestigial as the effect of the Vikings’ property rules. Mr. Google’s Guidebook has cemented the verdict in place long after the early discussion has lost its relevance, like the edges of the Chinese take-away and like Mr. Wainwright’s guides fixed the routes of the paths he charted. With little new being written about the Netflix Prize the Guidebook is the major source of new journeys. And so the Guidebook changes the pattern of the landscape from a rich, linked one with its power law shape (or other shape). Instead, there is a two stage process in the evolution of much of the landscape. The first stage is a brief discussion, from which Mr. Google picks a few winners. In the second stage, after that discussion has faded away, the continuing popularity of the winners is assured simply by their positioning in the Guidebook. Mr. Google has singlehandedly changed the way people travel, changing the selection of destinations from an ongoing referendum to a brief discussion from which he anoints a few winners.Mr. Google no longer gives you what you want, he selects a winner from the crowd and then tells you it’s what you wanted.

I was just about to put down the pen, exhausted now, when I heard a creak and the door to the library opened. I lurched around to see coming through the door — Mr. Google himself! His face was no longer subservient as befits a butler. Instead it was smirking. And his teeth – surely they had not been so pointed before. I shrank.

But Mr. Google did not attack me with a knife, or bite me in the neck. Nothing so dramatic. He simply looked over at my scribbled notes and sighed a world-weary sigh.
– You don’t understand do you sir?
– What do you mean Google? I understand everything now.
– Really? This document here? And what does that matter if no one reads it? And who decides whether anyone can come here to view it? Exactly how do you propose to publicize your absurd opinions if not through me?

My shoulders sagged. Defeat. Of course, there was nothing I could do. “So you’ll silence it then. Keep people away. My revelations will moulder, along with that masterpiece about the toilets“.

– No (said Google). That’s what I mean – you really don’t understand. You see, I don’t care if people come and look at these hen scratches or not. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. As long as I can sell a few advertisements on that page of my guidebook I really don’t care. After all, what better praise for a Guidebook than to help people find out what’s wrong with it? Just leave your manuscript with me. I’ll look after it.

He held out his hand, imperious now. I felt disheveled after my long night. My brain was spinning. I could see no alternative. In a vain attempt to maintain some self-respect I drew myself up to my full height and pulled back my shoulders, adopting a bearing appropriate for my class. “All right Google. Here you go. Don’t lose it now.”

“Thank you sir. You can be sure I won’t lose it. I never do lose anything you know.”

I turned away from him and stumbled down the stairs. I had ended up giving him an order, and he had accepted it. Yet I could not shake the impression, even as he brought me a glass of sherry that evening in my sitting room, placing the silver tray beside me with deference, that Mr. Google – far from being a butler and travel guide – was more a master than a servant.

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  1. Thank you for this, and thank you, not to Mr. Google, but to Charlie, for pointing me this way. I have to say, I have never thought about the role of Google in my internet usage in this way. But the question remains: Is Google a positive influence on the way we use the internet?
    Oh, and I promise to read your “Tale of the Toilet”.

  2. yes. Most of my visitors are going via google to some distinctly average pictures I took a while ago. I have no idea where or how these people are visiting, if they like what they saw, or if something more mysterious is happening.
    On the subject of google, isn’t there an opportunity for a new engine to lay down a new superior set of pathways? the equivalent of the campus that, having added new buildings, and most people navigating via the old paths, rips up the paths and lets people find the new best routes?

  3. Is Google a positive influence? Well yes, in that it is indispensable to any regular traveller on the Internet. But then the locally monopolistic cable company is indispensable to any regular viewer of the TV (in North America), and the oligopolistic phone company is indispensable to most people who want to talk over distances, for a while longer anyway. So let’s say Google has many positive influences.
    One thing I do think is that, Dipper’s comment notwithstanding, there are big barriers to entry in the search engine-driven Internet advertising business, including but not limited to the sheer scale of hardware investment required. If Mr. Google becomes (already is?) a de facto monopoly in the guidebook business then there needs to be pressure to ensure it maintains its neutrality. We need to be able to see inside its cave – the recipes they use are, despite Google’s claims of radical openness, as secret as Coca Cola’s. Providers of monopoly goods need to open up more than they would like if they are to stay honest.

  4. The Post reminded me of an interesting observation by Ralph Waldo Emerson about Cows and signposts in “Conduct of Life” (which I vaguely remembered and then found in a Google search:
    “We say the cows laid out Boston. Well, there are worse surveyors. Every pedestrian in our pastures has frequent occasion to thank the cows for cutting the best path through the thicket, and over the hills: and travellers and Indians know the value of a buffalo–trail, which is sure to be the easiest possible pass through the ridge.”
    If you ever have had to drive in Boston, you might not appreciate the Cows’ surveying skills.

  5. A stormy night at Whimsley Hall

    Mr. Slee wonders what exactly Mr. Google, his exceedingly resourceful butler, is up to. A gem….

  6. What a great post. Creative, funny, and cuttingly insightful.

  7. This is a brilliant essay. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
    And yes, we all should be afraid of what Google is becoming.

  8. Found this through a link from Nick Carr…. excellent work, I’ll be back.
    And you don’t need to thank Mr Google for that.

  9. Damn you, Mr. Google, damn you. All that luvverly money, not mine, not mine! Had my latest brainchild, my latest bitter little pill, not turned out to be an elephantine suppository, I would have had you, I would! But mark my works, my turn will come! I will sweep away the non-tech-savvy crowds from your embrace! My newest bundled ‘Net Domin… er, Explorer will make you Search My Way…. (drool, slaver, drool)…

  10. Thanks for the generous comments everyone.

  11. You can remove yourself from the search landscape. You can block search bots. You will not be indexed. Then you will say, but how people will read about me? Through links. Exactly what I did, I have followed a link from another blog that I was reading.
    Blocking search engines, removing the hight decontextualisation that they generate with words is in fact quite positive. You follow links instead from communities to communities. You reintroduce opacity and human communications. It’s not a machine which gives you the answer but another human.

  12. This is nothing short of brilliant. If I wrote just one thing this good in my life I would be able to call it a win.

  13. A very funny and clever analysis! Thanks for the post.

  14. But, but, I can’t find the tale of toilet!

  15. There’s an interesting parallel between this (accurate, important) critique of Google and critiques of the national press by figures such as Jay Rosen ( and Dan Froomkin ( along these lines:
    – the press is a powerful player
    – at the core of the press’s identity is the conceit that they do not play a role; that theirs is a “view from nowhere”:
    – this conceit is false and leads to disaster after disaster
    – attacks on the conceit seem only to strengthen its hold
    If Google has ever acknowledged the dynamic you identify here (you were not the first, BTW), I have not seen it.

  16. Brilliant stuff. BTW, I reached this post via Mr. Carr’s blog, not Mr. Google. It strengthens a long-standing suspicion that the best places on the Web are rarely found through Mr. Google’s Guide.

  17. Mr Carr’s guidebook led me here. And am I thankful to him. Mr Google’s guidebook is not what it used to be, but it has become as essential as sherry is to a civilzed existence.
    Thanks Mr Whimsley.

  18. I too got here via Carr. But God, that was boring. Pretentious. But I seem to be in the minority – or are you merely removing all but the most glowing reviews?

  19. Thank you very much, Mr Whimsley. Your essay enriched not only my English, but also understanding of the i-jungle ecology. That teeth… I shrank. Paldies. Спасибо.
    And thanks to Mr Carr who guided me to this essay.

  20. came here via Mr Carr’s RSS. But wonder why he made the link. And that’s my point – who says the good old hypertext world was better than naughty old Mr Lycos, Mr Hotbot, Snr Alta Vista and Mr Google? Not me!

  21. Excellent!
    But surely the first line should have begun…
    “It was a dark and stormy night…” 😉

  22. An interesting way of looking at SEO for sure 😉
    I’m hoping Hugh Laurie will come along with the answer and a spare sherry in a moment…
    Yes people want guide books rather than maps and Google has a lot of those.
    But the tide is already changing.
    There are more independent guide book publisher printing every day.
    5 times more traffic comes to many blogs via social bookmarking than via natural search.
    I brought in 1000 (literally) more traffic by paying for social ads, than I did in my last google adwords campaign, and it was far more targeted traffic.
    Social bookmarking is yesterdays new guide book – the rough guides!
    No doubt Google will soon index social bookmarks and provide guides for those too. But there’s little value in that! People will eventually appoint a personal guide and Google will lose.
    You can see the indicators in buying YouTube, video searches appearing in results, buying Feedburner (rss feeds), buying (sorry forming) the social site data interchange format.
    I remember when I was very first told WOM by a friend about google. I typed in the thing and got back exactly what I wanted. From that day I was sold.
    But that is the sum total of my allegiance. As soon as somewhere else has better results, I am off. The more arrogant and bullish google becomes the sooner that will happen.
    Google need a new model. Adwords do not word for a LOT of people. Neither as a searcher, or a a publisher.
    The peasants are fast becoming tired of google’s back door bullying and monopolies.
    Yesterday the new google alternative is social bookmarking. tomorrow the new google alternative will be web3point8.
    I am biased, yes ! I have commercial interests in web3point8.
    But time will prove that I am correct that unless google do something radically different, they will lose their strangle hold on organic and paid search.
    If Yahoo “wake up” then google could be in big trouble. And Microsoft have already announced (and bought companies) that will help them gain more market share in the paid search arena.
    Google are pitching for tv white space. Microsoft are pitching for other media channels, like game placement and game network advertising.
    Yahoo are still sleeping. AOL is hanging in there and doing some astute things in the interim.
    Google is not the only publisher of guide books. And the number of people who want to make their own map and don’t want to follow the tourist foot paths, is a significant, and growing number.
    My prediction is Google have less than 5 years before they are just a part of the e-ether. 30% if they are lucky.

  23. Disclaimer: While it is true that Mr. Google pays me a fat sum every few weeks for certain personal services I perform for him (skanky details on request), I know little about how the Guidebook is assembled, and during the basic lecture on the subject that I did receive, I found only one thing that was not more or less as I had already supposed. (“Is it true that you mumble-mumble by means of mumble-mumble mumbling?” “We used to, but now that we have sufficient urmurm-urmurm, we don’t need to any more.” “Oh, okay then.”)
    I rode here, like many another among your commenters, on a link from another blog, and I found both this essay and the tale of the toilet quite delightful. (By the way, entering the words “market”, “state”, and “toilet”, in any order desired, into any of Mr. Google’s various convenient kiosks will at once produce the article in question.)
    However, I feel I must point out a fundamental error in the logic of the posting above. You say: “And now no one is guided here by those few original links – the relevance of their effect is as vestigial as the effect of the Vikings’ property rules.” But there are not-insignificant individuals who continue to bypass Mr. Google’s Guidebook entirely, and therefore continue to depend on those few original links — to wit, the minions of Mr. Google themselves. If they see that the number of links has diminished either absolutely or relatively, they can and do make changes in the Guidebook’s rank ordering. (I should also add that said minions take some 200-odd other factors into account — no, I do not know what they are — as neatly illustrated in my own case: the bluegrass musician who shares my name continues to occupy the #1 slot in the Guidebook no matter what I do, quite possibly because he grabbed first.)
    And though the Netflix Prize may be a thing of the dead past for the most part, Mr. Google’s world as a whole is most certainly not. Why, his minions report that every time they examine the maps to produce an updated edition, more than one out of ten destinations is entirely new to them, whether in fact newly created or merely newly discovered through walking the links. Without those links, Mr. Google’s Guidebook would rapidly become stale indeed.
    Finally, a comforting note: Mr. Google has dozens of caves scattered across the planet, and the outbreak of fire in any one of them by no means entails a disruption in service. Those who use the Guidebook daily — that is, in practice, everybody — need fear no such sudden check to the gratification of their touristic propensities.

  24. Really interesting and well written. I also came here through Nick Carr link. I wonder what alternatives there are today to google-like engines … the only one I found was Mahalo (, even though I am not sure how far it will go.
    I guess it all depends on what you want to do. On the real world, if you know where you are going, you can take a highway, it will take you there quicker than going through country roads. It could be the same here: if you know you are searching for something that is well found through google, then use google. But if you are more on a journey than on a quick trip, if you are really searching, you’ll go out of the highway and take the time to stop several times, go through different country roads, visit à village…
    I think that when I go to Google I know what I am looking for. And now, if I am searching something, I am going to move through the blogs, websites of people or firms I know, and use Google or Mahalo for a very precise purpose.
    I guess the web is going to become very social, but Google will always be useful to move quickly between “social places” in which searching and finding should be more of a social activity.
    When you arrive at new location, it is not the signposts that tell you where interesting people are and interesting things happen

  25. Thanks again for these great comments. I can’t do them justice, but a few responses:
    Jevgenis – that’s the first time in 30 years that I have used my high school Russian. Спасибо to you too.
    Peter Buick – it will be interesting to see whether Google is a flash in the pan as you suggest or whether it will maintain its influence. My bet, for what it’s worth, is that while social sites (Facebook, Second Life) will come and go rapidly, Google will continue to be hugely important. But good luck with the alternatives.
    John Cowan – I accept that the relation between links and search is clearly more complex than I portrayed. Perhaps my real target should have been the assertion that the net is inherently democratic, meritocratic and egalitarian.
    Luis Alberola – There are certainly different ways of travelling, and many that don’t rely on guidebooks. I spend more time wandering around than I should (especially during the long winter we’ve been having here). How much will become search and how much other forms of navigation we’ll have to wait and see.

  26. A most interesting story which gives much, as the people say, “food for thought”. I’m grateful to Mr. Google’s Reader Almanac for pointing me here – a whole section of it is devoted to help the reader discover fine articles he might lose if he just followed the proclaimed “wisdom of the crowds”. The Almanac even has a reader’s corner, where one might suggest his favourite texts to his friends. I know I shared this story with my fellows.
    Disclaimer: I, too, am a Mr. Google employee. And happily so; his cooking is superb.

  27. Just read this, via a link from your 2013 self-assessment, which I found via a link from Crooked Timber. And I followed the link you provided to read your toilet article, which was also interesting. So not so obsolete after all, perhaps. But perhaps I’m an anomaly, in that I tend to browse around sites of people who’ve written one essay that interests me, in search of more that they have written.

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