Last May, I conducted a little experiment. I went to six different Internet search engines and typed in one word: Seattle. I then looked at the first page of non-sponsored results. Since search engines profess to seek what customers really want, I thought this might give me, New To Seattle, some insight into what’s really important in the minds of the masses, or at least what is being offered at first glance. What I ended up getting was an interestingly eclectic mix.
A year later. Time to duplicate the experiment.
Results: rather boring convergence. A lot more of a happy-talk focus on tourists and their interests. A lot less of an emphasis on most everything else.
I started again with lesser-known Mahalo.com, whose slogan is “Learn Anything.” I’d say it’s the search engine that really needs some learnin’. Besides grammatical mistakes, the first page of Seattle results had false political facts (Greg Nickels listed as the mayor instead of Mike McGinn, who has held the job for three years), out-of-date data (the 2006 population for Seattle, nearly 40,000 less than the current estimate of 621,000) and simply incorrect information. Four of the seven listed “notable companies” of Seattle, for example, are actually based outside the city (Boeing, Microsoft, T-Mobile and Eddie Bauer). It was the one search engine displaying results with the least orientation toward visitors. Not to mention toward accuracy.
Then I moved to Yippy.com. This one did a lot better than last year. The first page coughed up what I suppose is an obligatory link to the movie “Sleepless in Seattle.” Relying heavily on Wikipedia, the Yippy page linked to entries about Seattle history and, perhaps less usefully, West Seattle and the Metro Bus Tunnel. There was also a reference to that U.S. Postal Service list I wrote about recently ranking Seattle No. 2 in dog bites sustained by letter-carriers. Other links produced weather and information about the semi-hapless Seattle Mariners. Recent news stories on the page, which might reflect the interest of visitors, included the collapse of the Sacramento Kings grab and Seattle’ municipal effort to mandate paid sick leave. In my judgment, Yippy produced the broadest quick picture of Seattle of any search engine I used.
DuckDuckGo.com, the oddly named search engine that largely relies on other search engines, returned a page of information largely geared to tourists. This included links to the tourism promotion agency VisitSeattle.org, various travel guides and booking agencies. For some reason the home page of Seattle University also made the opening screen.
Moving toward better-known search engines, Yahoo.com also produced a page skewed to tourists, but with an illuminating twist. The third result, behind a Yahoo travel page and the City of Seattle website, was a link to University Village, the shopping center just north of the University of Washington campus. I suppose someone in the University Village management has mastered the dark arts of search engine optimization.
The Yahoo results were almost identical to those generated by Microsoft-owned Bing.com. This is not surprising since Bing now handles searches for Yahoo. I can’t say the local control of Bing yielded additional insight into Seattle. But stressing the visual a little more, Bing also served up images of the Emerald City. Of course, four of the five thumbnail photos featured the Space Needle.
Finally, there’s giant Google. It has gone touristy, too. VisitSeattle.org sat at the top of the page, and there were links to TripAdvisor.com (“442 Things To Do in Seattle”) and Fodors. There was also a link to a USA Today travel story entitled, “Take the SLUT in Seattle,” which I learned was an acronym for the South Lake Union Trolley. Still, the query did dredge up one fresh story on the Seattle Times website putting Washington State spending on public education at below the national average.
Society’s same old evolution is being played out on the Internet, I think. Entrepreneurs start out creative and distinctive until they look at their rivals, become scared and risk-averse, and start copying each other. The result is more superficiality. But after all, Seattle is such a nice place to visit.