Google and Your Brain, Part 2

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by: Roger Dooley

OK, when I closed my post Branding, Brains, and Google, I made the point that it’s too easy to beat an analogy to death and said I wouldn’t do it. But, here I am, taking up my cudgel to give the Google/brain analogy one more whack. This facet of the analogy is a comparison between Google’s PageRank and our human need for social proof in decision making. When I’m not writing here at Neuromarketing, I’m often managing search engine optimization (SEO) projects, and it was reflecting on the intersection of these activities that suggested this new analogy extension.

Google PageRank

Google’s startling success as a search engine was based, at least in its early years, on its innovative PageRank system. By assigning a level of importance to each page based on how many pages linked to it, and in turn letting each page transmit this importance to other pages with its own outbound links, Google managed to deliver more accurate results. Pages with more inbound links, and “better” inbound links, tend to outrank pages with fewer links. That’s a simplistic view and overlooks a variety of other ranking factors, but Google’s method of taking the “votes” of other sites into account was a key part of delivering better search results.

Social Proof

There is ample evidence from behavioral research that our decision-making is often based on the response of others to the same circumstance. Here’s an example of social proof in action from Wikipedia:

In April 2007, the Washington Post convinced Joshua Bell, a famous violin virtuoso to play in the Washington DC subway during the morning rush hour. So he took his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and played. Almost no one noticed or stopped to listen. He collected a total of $32 for an hour of playing (excluding a $20 bill that was given by a person who recognized him).

The above is sometimes given as an example of social proof in action. The subway commuters are using each others’ response to the violinist in order to determine their own response to him. Without the cues that signal the violinist’s quality that accompany him when performing in a concert hall, such as expensive tickets and posters, the violinist is judged by other commuters’ reaction to him: as most commuters are primarily concerned with reaching their place of work, this forms the response the commuters signal to one another about the violinist.

I think it’s reasonable to say that there’s a similarity here (though I’m not suggesting cause and effect or even conscious imitation) – Google and our brains both try to improve the decision-making process by including the actions of others in our decision-making process. This is, by and large, a successful strategy. It’s not perfect, though – popularity isn’t always deserved, and both systems can be manipulated. Google can be gamed by a variety of techniques – buying links is the most obvious. A site that might not “earn” links based on its quality might appear to Google to be important or popular by paying other sites to link to it. And Wikipedia notes,

The concept of “Social Proof” and the fundamental attribution error can be easily exploited by persuading (or paying) attractive women to display (or at least fake) public interest in a man. Other people will attribute the women’s behavior as due to the man’s character and are unlikely to consider that they are interested in him due to the actual reasons (external gain).

I don’t think this insight makes us better marketers, but I do find it interesting that Google mimicked a technique that our brains have been doing unconsciously for millennia.

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