World Wide Catacombs

What started as plain old Web search has now been marginalized as “organic”. That’s because the plain old Web — the one Tim Berners-Lee created as a way to hyperlink documents — has become commercialized to such an extent that the about the only “organic” result reliably rising to first-page status is Wikipedia.

Let’s say your interest in “granite” and “Vermont” is geological, rather than commercial. The first page of Google results won’t help much if your interest goes beyond visiting a headstone mineSame goes for Bing. I notice this change because it’s becoming harder and harder for me to do casual research on geology (or most other topics that interest me) on the Web.

Yesterday Vivek Wadhwa tweeted a perfect line: “Google is paying content farms to pollute the web”. This is true, yet the problem is bigger than that. The Web is changing from a world wide library with some commercial content to a world wide mall with intellectually interesting publications buried under it, in virtual catacombs. Google’s mission of “organizing all the world’s information” is still satisfied. The problem is that most of that information — at least on the Web — is about selling something. The percentage of websites that are Web stores goes up and up. SEO only makes the problem worse.

The Berkman Center has a project that should encourage thinking about solving this problem, along with many others. Specifically,

The Berkman Center and Stanford Law School are pleased to announce a new initiative in which we invite the world to submit their ‘Ideas for a Better Internet.’ We are seeking out brief proposals from anyone with ideas as to how to improve the Internet. Students at Harvard and Stanford will work through early next year to implement the ideas selected. Interested parties should submit their ideas at by Friday, April 15. Please spread the word far and wide, and follow us on Twitter at

So get your ideas in by Tax Day.


  1. Hanan Cohen’s avatar

    In the past year I have mainly switched to

    The fifth result links to a page at that has a link to the
    Vermont Geological Survey

  2. Spravka’s avatar

    What about Blekko? … Viewing the press video it might be something interesting

  3. Shane Curcuru’s avatar

    How about a simple radiobutton on search engines. Two options: “Products” and “Knowledge”. While I’m sure some marketers would start to game the system after a while, it would improve non-shopping results for a lot of areas.

  4. Kartik Subbarao’s avatar

    I have a different experience. I find that the first page of results on Google often gives me unexpectedly useful results. I happen upon direct links to original content that I’d never expect to find — and to all sorts of places, from academic journals, to books, to magazines, to blogs, to videos, to government data, etc. I’m constantly discovering information sources that I never knew about before. For me, the web keeps getting better and better.

    I’m not denying that there are areas where commercial content with low information density can crowd out other content, and frustrate the user experience. Your geological example is a good illustration of that. I run into that myself from time to time as well. But this isn’t the most common experience for me, so I wouldn’t agree with the general sentiment of your post.

  5. Mark’s avatar

    So there might be a “non-commercial” niche for a search engine to occupy, eg. if your site is selling something, or is owned by a company that sells something, it doesn’t appear in the search results.

  6. Mark’s avatar

    “The problem is that most of that information — at least on the Web — is about selling something.”

    Isn’t that true of society in general today?

  7. spike’s avatar

    If you’re just searching “vermont granite” in Google, you’re being either willfully dense or woefully ignorant. If you learn how to properly use Google – for example, searching “geology+vermont granite” yields better results: Even better, “geological history+vermont granite”:

    Learn how to tailor your search terms, and you’ll get better results.

  8. Eileen Mignoni’s avatar

    Interestingly, and proving your point, your mention of the Dorothy Parker quote made finding the source via search frustrating to impossible given the number of pages who simply reflect what you said.

    I hate search. I avoid it when at all possible unless I have the precise sequence of necessary words and/or I use wikipedia.

    The future – likely only trusted sources. Reputable providers (legacy media) and one’s acquaintances. It’s a shame that it will diminish the egalitarian space the the web once was, but there seems to be no other recourse.

  9. Geoff Campbell’s avatar

    It would be great if each site got categorized into commercial, academic, entertainment etc and if you could specifically filter out commercially oriented sites. Maybe someone will build a search engine for that.

  10. Terry Heaton’s avatar

    Beautifully stated, Doc, and it fits with fascinating new findings in the latest Borrell Benchmarking survey (here, here, and here). That last link is my piece this week on “We must think of ads as content.” In a nutshell, what Borrell is finding is that content is still king, but it’s advertising content, not editorial. Armed with free or nearly free tools, the people with the money (to paraphrase Rosen, “the people formerly known as the advertisers”) are spending it not on advertising but on creating their own content. From the Borrell report: “the Top 5 local online companies derive all their content from their own advertisers. In fact, half of the top 20 are all-advertising sites.”

    So not only is this taking place, but you have the content farms, as you note.

    I think that until smart developers create tools for specifically mining these kinds of content, people will continue to use the old search engines. When that happens (and it should, because there’s money there), we’ll see changes in what the search engines deliver.

    Great piece. Many thanks.

  11. Cory Collier’s avatar

    While I can agree that SEO amounts to paying for search engine rankings, which search engines allow, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Having something (like Wikipedia) that allows for non-commercial results to pop up in search results is a good thing.

    I don’t mean to ramble. My point is; if I want strictly intelligent results for something, I use Wikipedia. If I don’t mind the noise, I use Google.

    Vivek Wadhwa saying that “Google is paying content farms to pollute the web” sounds like some complaining about ads on the radio.

    If you don’t like the ads, change the station :/

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Spike, I know how to do keyword search. I used that pair of words to illustrate a point. If you could go back in time and search for those same two words, I can guarantee that the results would be very different, with the organic results appearing on the first page.

    Spravka, I’ve tried Blekko. And Hanan, I’ll give a try too. We need these alternatives. We also need to either acquiesce to the commercial Web or find a way to start exhuming the organic stuff.

  13. vanderleun’s avatar

    So. Let me get this straight. The Brainiacs at Berkman want everyone to finish their taxes and fix the Web on the same deadline? I can just see that tsunami of brilliance swamping their servers.

  14. spike’s avatar

    But of course if you go back in time and search you would get different results. You would get different results asking a 4 year old and a 15 year old as well, simply because their experience and knowledge has ballooned significantly.

    Likewise, the web has significantly more content than it did in it’s early days. I understand your point about the vast scale of the commercialization of the web, but I think that is neither surprising, nor worrying. We are inundated with commercial messages in our daily lives, but we know places that we can go to get real information: libraries, bookstores, universities, museums, talks, magazines. The web is the same, and it seems strange to think that it could be any different.

    Given the wealth of content and information out in the world, I’m surprised that you think it would be so easy to do “casual research”. How would you have done “casual research” before the internet? You would have gone to a knowledge center (library), looked through their card catalog, leafed through a few books, etc etc. Sounds familiar. If I want to do “casual research”, I go to a knowledge center (wikipedia, or lexisnexis, or jstor, or etc), and enter a search term.

    Am I being intentionally dense here?

  15. Mark Dykeman’s avatar

    Thanks for the link, Doc – I wasn’t aware of what the Berkman Center was planning to do.

    I think the catacombs analogy is appropriate enough. I think I remember reading about a Semantic Web before, sort of the next evolution of the Web. Would it be so hard to create new attributes that categories web resources between, say: commercial, entertainment, scientific, religious, children, fiction, history, etc. and then give the user filters on their search page?

    Well, I can dream, can’t I?

  16. Book Publisher’s avatar

    The concern is that there might be a “non-commercial” niche for a search engine to occupy, eg. if your site is selling something, or is owned by a company that sells something, it doesn’t appear in the search results.

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